Local lawmakers expressed confidence Wednesday that Avista Corp. would remain a dedicated community partner, despite the unexpected announcement of its sale to a Canadian company after operating independently in Spokane for more than a century.
“I’m confident that if they continue with (a locally based) board of directors – which they stated they would – and continue with the same senior leadership at Avista, they’ve always been great partners, and none of that is going to change,” City Council President Ben Stuckart said.
In a statement, Mayor David Condon said the city is looking forward “to getting to know Hydro One and welcoming them to Spokane.”
The Ontario-based utility and Avista announced a $5.3 billion cash-only acquisition Wednesday afternoon in a statement the public and decision-makers received at the same time.
“Avista is a great employer and community partner. I have the privilege of witnessing firsthand every day locals and visitors enjoying the Gathering Place outside of City Hall, one of Avista’s many great contributions to Spokane,” Condon said in his statement. “We are encouraged to hear about Hydro One’s stated commitment to Spokane, Avista employees and the customers they serve.”
Other elected officials praised the utility’s longstanding commitment to the community, including charitable giving and spurring job opportunities.
“Avista has been an incredible corporate partner for the city of Spokane, Spokane Valley, Spokane County. Losing that kind of corporate presence would be a real setback,” said Spokane County Commissioner Al French, who also served as a Spokane city councilman and worked for Washington Water Power in the 1970s before it became Avista.
French believed, based on conversations with Avista officials and others, the level of commitment to the community would not diminish after the transaction, a point the utility echoed in its public statements Wednesday.
“The fact that they’re going to be able to keep the headquarters here, with all the consolidations happening all over this country, that’s a big deal,” French said.
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers also praised Avista’s regional ties in a statement responding to the announced sale.
“I’m proud of the clean, renewable and reliable energy we produce in Eastern Washington, and Avista has long maintained a strong commitment to our community and to delivering energy throughout the Inland Northwest,” the statement said. “I look forward to learning more about Hydro One, but I’m pleased to hear of their dedication to the employees and ratepayers in Eastern Washington and to maintaining Avista’s legacy of economic development here in Spokane.”
Todd Mielke, chief executive officer of Greater Spokane Incorporated, the region’s chamber of commerce, said he learned of the deal on a plane ride and was pleased to see that Avista would maintain much of its autonomy and local leadership under the terms disclosed Wednesday.
“The notion that they could go pick a partner that would allow them to maintain a strong control of their destiny and maintain their legacy, I think is phenomenal,” Mielke said.
Mielke said he also believed the partnership would allow the utility to continue and expand its economic development efforts in Spokane.
The Avista Foundation, the charitable arm of the utility, reported gifts last year of $641,332 to the IRS, according to the organization’s most recent filing with the agency. Among the top beneficiaries were the foundations supporting Whitworth University, Eastern Washington University, Gonzaga University, the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, the United Way and Providence Health Care.
“Avista has been such an important part of our community, and I would imagine they will be into the future, regardless of the ownership entity,” said state Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane.
State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said he, too, was surprised by the announcement Wednesday afternoon.
“I want to make sure that our ratepayers are protected, and I will work hard to find out more about the deal,” Baumgartner said by phone.
Avista operates five hydroelectric dams on the Spokane River, and has been involved in what Spokane Riverkeeper Jerry White called “tough dialogue” on ecological issues in the past. The conservation group will be closely evaluating Hydro One’s environmental efforts, White said, and hopes what he called a “pretty functional and positive relationship” with Avista will continue as the sale is finalized.
“We’re going to reserve judgment, right now,” White said. “But, certainly, there’s grounds to be concerned when an international company acquires a company that has such a profound impact on our river and our environment.”
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