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Shawn Vestal: New campaign looks to turn Seattle-Spokane narrative on its head

Shawn Vestal

As Seattle overflows, Spokane is trying to sell itself as a haven for broke, traffic-harried refugees from the West Side.

“Welcome to the 12-minute commute,” reads one new digital ad that sells Spokane to Seattle business owners.

“Buy a 4BR house in the city and another on the lake,” reads another.

“You used to think you could have it all in Washington,” the ad campaign’s web site says. “We still do.”

The ads – which are part of a $450,000 city marketing campaign – turn the old formula about Spokane’s little-brother relationship to Seattle on its head. These pitches are headed straight to the heart of Seattle, targeted to business owners and Spokane “alumni” who left for the supposedly cooler city, and they make a clear argument: It’s better over here on the dry side.

“It really is an effort to set Spokane apart based on what’s happening on the West Side of the state,” said Brian Coddington, the former city spokesman who drove the development of the campaign before leaving for a position at Spokane Public Schools.

The campaign is called #HackingWashington, and it’s the city’s first foray into the kind of economic development efforts that might, in the past, have been handled solely by Greater Spokane Incorporated or other organizations.

It is using online ads targeted very specifically to 556 small businesses and organizations in tech, health care, aerospace and other industries; the idea is to drive them to a web site with much more information about Spokane. The web site has a lot of stories and videos about some of the cool, creative things happening here.

The #HackingWashington campaign is contracted out to local firms Chapter & Verse, Quinn and Treatment. The goal is to create leads for follow-up courtship, including plans for Mayor David Condon to meet with Seattleites intrigued by the ads.

A joint initiative of the Condon administration and the City Council, #HackingWashington has been underway for about six weeks. As it has worked its way through City Hall, the effort drew a lot of questions from members of the City Council concerned about costs and details.

Councilwoman Candace Mumm had initial concerns about the wisdom of spending that money versus helping business owners here.

“One of my reservations was we have a lot of great small businesses and startups in Spokane, and we need to support those people,” Mumm said.

‘Wondering why’

Mumm was eventually persuaded that the city was also working to support local businesses, as it did for business owners along North Monroe Street during the recently completed roadwork.

Councilwoman Kate Burke was the only vote against the campaign. She was relatively newly sworn in at the time of the vote and was taken aback at the cost of it – at a time when she thought the city was facing more pressing local problems with homelessness and other issues – as well as the notion of selling Spokane primarily as a place where real estate is cheap for the wealthy.

“I do think overall the message is disrespectful to our constituents in Spokane,” Burke said. “But mostly I’m wondering why we’re spending $500,000 on an advertising campaign, when we could have used that to educate or train local people.”

Supporters of the effort note that if Seattle businesses move here or open a second headquarters in Spokane, it will contribute to the city’s overall growth and success. Julie Happy, city spokeswoman, noted that the city has invested in efforts to help local businesses on East Sprague Avenue, North Monroe and other parts of town as part of infrastructure projects.

“It’s not one or the other,” Happy said. “We’re kind of doing it all together – helping small businesses here and trying to bring in additional businesses.”

‘I’ve had it’

Seattle’s economic boom and the attendant problems have created a push-pull effect. Lots of people are drawn to the city, and lots of people are drawn away, too.

For more and more people lately, the downsides seem to be winning.

In May, the Seattle Times published an op-ed by Alex Berezow, a science writer with a Ph.D. from the University of Washington, headlined, “After 14 years, I’ve had it. I’m leaving Seattle.”

Berezow complained that toxic liberal politics, skyrocketing housing costs, and other problems have made the city – which is great in so many ways – practically unlivable. For a young person looking to buy a home, it has become practically impossible.

“So, my wife and I are heading to the Eastside. We really would prefer to stay in Seattle. But if safe streets, clean sidewalks, an affordable place to live and polite discourse is asking too much, we’ll gladly seek refuge in a city where quality of life and civility still matter.”

Berezow isn’t moving to Spokane – he was using “Eastside” to refer to Woodinville, he told me this week in an email. But his desire to flee that city is hardly unique. The Times also recently profiled a near-retiree who realized that, “to retire with enough money to get by, she’ll need to relocate to somewhere with a lower cost of living. She’s considering Spokane.”

This is the movement #HackingWashington is trying to capitalize on, and it seems to have reached a tipping point. The national real-estate brokerage Redfin reported that more of its site’s users were looking to leave Seattle than to move there in the fourth quarter, marking a reversal from earlier quarters.

‘Time to be reintroduced’

A lot of migration out of Seattle is similar to Berezow’s move – from the city to the suburbs. About a third of the annual migration from King County between 2011 and 2015 went to neighboring Snohomish and Pierce counties, according to a Seattle Times report in May.

A different report showed a different kind of migration, though – the search for a smaller, quieter city that Spokane wants to capitalize on. An analysis by the online networking service LinkedIn showed that of its members who moved from Seattle last year, Boise was the most frequent destination.

Spokane has one of the highest gross migration numbers in the LinkedIn report – the most moving to or from Seattle. For every 10,000 members of the web site in Seattle, 13.49 either moved to or from Spokane in the past year.

One of the goals of the #HackingWashington campaign is to reverse some of those moves – to bring back people who left Spokane for the Interstate 5 corridor.

For those people, “it’s time to be reintroduced to what’s happening in Spokane,” Coddington said.

Truthfully, the #HackingWashington web site would also be of interest to people who live here already. As a compilation of the best corners of Spokane life these days, it’s hard to beat, focusing on all the economic, cultural and recreational reasons to love it here.

It may well attract businesses and other Seattle refugees here. But even if you’re here already, there’s plenty you could learn about Spokane’s current cultural moment by browsing

Check it out sometime. Perhaps after a visit to Seattle.

You might decide it’s better here on the dry side, too.

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