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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane’s increasingly worst-kept secret: It’s a great place to live and work

Engineers Abigail Messegee and Jon Potter like to spend time near North Monroe Street, particularly at Vessel Coffee Roasters. The two millenials are fiancees and moved to Spokane on July 1. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Engineers Abigail Messegee and Jon Potter like to spend time near North Monroe Street, particularly at Vessel Coffee Roasters. The two millenials are fiancees and moved to Spokane on July 1. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
By Samantha Malott The Spokesman-Review

Jon Potter and Abigail Messegee have found “their spot” along the North Monroe corridor.

From their new home, they can walk a block over to their favorite coffee shop, Vessel Coffee Roasters, or over a few more blocks for a beer at Bellwether Brewing, and Jon, 30, can even get a taste of his Canadian roots at the local hockey bar, Hub Tavern.

After having only been in Spokane a little over a month, Messegee, 23, said, “We’ve found our home base.” But she will admit, she was hesitant, and at times even downright against making the move.

It’s a decision many millennials – people in their early 20s to mid-30s – are having to make these days.

Potter, a 2014 Washington State University graduate, and Messegee, a 2016 University of Idaho graduate, both work as engineers – Potter at DCI Engineers and Messegee remotely for PCS Structural Solutions. They got engaged shortly before moving to Spokane on July 1.

Following graduation both moved to the Seattle-Tacoma area. Messegee grew up in Centralia, Washington, and Potter is a native of Vancouver, British Columbia. After meeting at a house concert in Seattle about a year and a half ago, Messegee said, “We had always joked about moving to Spokane, but apparently we weren’t joking.”

“I didn’t like Spokane,” she said. “… but there were a lot of places I hadn’t seen yet.”

When the opportunity arose for Potter to buy a house, he jumped on it.

“At first, I was just relieved I didn’t hate it,” Messegee said. “Everyday I’m loving it more and more. It is up and coming into this unique flavor of a city.”

Potter said the affordability played a huge role for him. “All I had is debt” living in Seattle, he said. “I felt like I was treading water just to survive.”

Looking at the engineering field between the two cities, he said, the pay was similar but he could land a cheaper mortgage payment in Spokane than what it cost to rent a studio apartment in Seattle.

In Spokane, Potter and Messegee also believe their goals of opening their own businesses are possible. Potter said he would love to start a small engineering firm, while Messegee hopes to open a yoga studio someday.

Messegee added Spokane still has a small-town feel despite its size, where other businesses are rooting for new entrepreneurs. They don’t see it as competition, she said, but encourage community growth.

“I’ve made more friends in six weeks than I did for two years in Tacoma,” Messegee said.

Looking to their future, Messegee said at first they figured they would stay a few years and move on, but now, “Why would we ever go back?”

Looking at the numbers, however, they don’t quite paint an image of a mass migration of millennials to Spokane.

The statistics

According to information from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey One-Year Estimate, the 25-to-29 age group saw an increase from 7.1 percent of the Spokane County population to 7.8 percent from 2010 to 2016. The 30-to-34 age group saw a smaller increase of 6.3 percent to 6.8 percent during that same period. However, the 20-to-24 age group decreased by 1.2 percent, down to 7 percent during those same years.

Compared to other cities, Boise saw an increase from 8.4 percent to 9 percent in the 25-to-29 age group from 2010 to 2016 and an increase of 0.8 percent in the 30-to-34 age group. It also saw a 1 percent decrease in 20- to 24-year-olds to 7.1 percent during that period.

The problem with looking at such numbers as the main indicator though is that they don’t paint a clear picture of change.

Grant Forsyth, Avista Corp.’s chief economist, said the challenge is that from year to year, there will be residents aging in and out of millennial groups, not specifically moving to the area.

“So you aren’t really capturing the new group,” he said. “But you also might be getting people moving and leaving, but you can’t tell which it is.”

Jim Frank, principal and CEO of Greenstone Commercial Properties who developed areas such as Kendall Yards, said a lot of people are moving in from out of town, but the numbers generally don’t show such things until years later.

“It is happening whether it actually shows up on some numbers,” he said.

Patrick Kendrick, realtor and investor with Audubon Realty and co-founder of Terrain Spokane, a nonprofit focused on building and supporting the local art community and economy, said he is seeing a lot more “younger people” moving in from other cities. Potter and Messegee were among them.

“Over the past couple of years it has made up about 20 percent, which is a lot more than it used to be,” he said.

Kendrick said with the high cost of living in Seattle and Portland “it is a joke for them to come over here and see what they can get. … It is almost like a lottery winning.”

The economy

Kendrick said people are also starting to notice the economic growth in Spokane. “They can start a business here and not feel that it is the same level of risk that it would have been five, 10 years ago,” he said. “They know people are going to appreciate and be able to afford what they are offering.”

Doug Tweedy, regional economist for the Washington state Employment Security Department, said millennials make up less of the total population locally than the younger generation, but are entering the labor force at a faster rate. Millennials in the workforce have also surpassed the number of baby boomers, he said.

Currently, millennials account for 22.4 percent of the Spokane County workforce, he said, while baby boomers account for 22.2 percent. Seventy-three percent of those millennials have entered the workforce in information technology, finance and insurance, professional, scientific and technical services and health services categories.

One of the challenges, Tweedy said, is having job openings in a variety of fields that millennials don’t generally look at. “I don’t think people realize how advanced our manufacturing has become. The workforce here is creating more attractive jobs for millennials,” he said.

Spokane has a fair number of midsize employers in diverse markets, Tweedy said, adding that those encouraging the greatest in-migration of millennials are the medical schools and health services, banks and credit unions, communications, and research and development companies.

Elisabeth Hooker, marketing and programming manager with Downtown Spokane, said jobs are a priority for all the development groups.

“We can say how great it is here all we want, but they aren’t going to come here without a job,” she said. “It has to be more about the life you want to build. We aren’t going to be upper-level Microsoft, but we have to nurture our lifestyle. … We offer a really good work-life balance.”

Tweedy said the East Side, when compared to Western Washington, has a greater number of industries that are less reliant on the market, and the region is less likely to have worker stresses such as long commutes and a higher cost of living.

“Young adults come here to study, and more end up staying here because of that labor stress,” he said, adding that money goes a lot further in Spokane.

According to Downtown Spokane’s 2017 Economic Report, the average income in Spokane was $43,703 compared to Seattle’s $70,332 and Boise’s $51,170. But the average monthly rent in Spokane was $800 compared to $2,100 in Seattle and $930 in Boise. For those looking to purchase, the average home price in Spokane was $226,098 – significantly less than Seattle’s average of $589,443 or Boise’s $391,170.

Currently, 40.4 percent of downtown residents in Spokane are between ages 18 and 34, according to Downtown Spokane. Hooker said a lot of those residents are new to Spokane or recent graduates.

The visible changes

But as with the population data, there are some changes that can’t be quite as easily tracked but are even more visible, such as urban housing and business developments, improvements to parks and walkability, and the explosion of diverse social opportunities such as markets, events in Riverfront Park, a variety of annual concert series and many more.

“Spokane is now seen as a viable option,” Frank said. “There has been so much improvement in the quality of our urban neighborhoods.”

Without stereotyping what the millennial generation is drawn to, Frank said, it is clear by looking at the growth of areas like Kendall Yards, the south Perry and University districts and events like the Night Market and Terrain, what specifically that group is drawn to.

They appear to be much more into the social aspect of things, Frank said, adding that while the Night Market averages $40,000 in sales every week, it is much more about the urban experience, as many people just come to walk around and hang out with friends, not just shop.

Kendrick said there are so many people holding so many events that now on a Friday night, “you have to pick between seven different shows you want to go to.”

“That’s the kind of culture I think defines positive energy growth. When you have diversity, you can go to these events and see all kinds of people,” he said.

Hooker added that Spokane is yet to find its defining characteristic, but “I really think Spokane is on the rise.”

“People have always kind of looked past Spokane, but now people are realizing we have this lively culture here,” she said. “It all nudges forward a little bit at a time.”

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