If downtown crime, public safety and homelessness weren’t already at the center of public dialogue in Spokane, they are now.
Developer Larry Stone poured financial resources and time into a 17-minute video, dubbed “Curing Spokane” and published on Thursday, that depicted a city suffering from rampant property crime downtown and offered four solutions to help mitigate it.
Based largely on an incomplete comparison between Spokane and Boise, Stone’s video proposes building a new county jail with greater capacity; increasing downtown policing and more aggressively prosecuting misdemeanor crimes; selling the Spokane Transit Authority plaza and building a new station underground; and improving access to parking downtown.
Although some refrained from commenting directly on the video or its proposed solutions – and some had not yet seen it – Stone’s peers in the Spokane development community offered their views about how to deal with downtown crimeon Friday.
Frustrated by property damage and theft, the owner of the Davenport Hotel wants to see an increased police presence in downtown Spokane.
“How else are you going to stop it, if you don’t have that presence? That’s what other towns do,” Walt Worthy said in an interview on Friday.
But about a half mile away, the owner of The Community Building cautions that addressing downtown crime through the criminal justice system is a “Band-Aid kind of way of dealing with cultural ills.”
“It always seems to be the quick answer, and it never works,” said Jim Sheehan, Community Building owner and a former public defender of more than 20 years.
Jim Frank, developer of Kendall Yards and owner of Greenstone Corp., said areas of high crime in Spokane tend to be those with high rates of poverty, not necessarily just downtown.
“I believe that to fix this problem, you have to deal with the poverty problem,” Frank said. “I think the poverty problem in Spokane is due largely to a lack of investment in our inner city neighborhoods. We seem to have a lot of money for investment in a lot of portions of the community, but you don’t see that investment occurring in our inner city neighborhoods.”
Kendall Yards experiences crime, Frank said, but “it’s not anything unusual.” He called on the business community to play a stronger role in working on a variety of projects that would help strengthen neighborhoods across the city.
Worthy, owner of the Davenport Hotel and other hotels in Spokane, laments the need for his company to have more than 20 people on his security staff.
“It’s a very small percentage of the people downtown, but they cause some issues from time to time. We spend several hundred thousands of dollars on security at our hotels. Nobody realizes what the cost is,” said Worthy, who has not yet seen “Curing Spokane.”
Without security, “you put your guests at risk,” Worthy said, adding that there have been multiple car thefts, incidences of car prowling or broken windows, and stolen bikes at his hotels.
“Anything that’s not nailed down is subject to going away,” Worthy said.
In addition to security costs, Worthy estimated his company spends $100,000 a year on plants, flowers and landscaping, in part due to damage caused by passers by.
Worthy advocated for a greater police presence downtown to address crime. (The downtown police precinct is slated to receive five new police officers in 2020 due to a public safety levy passed by Spokane voters earlier this year.)
“Otherwise, people are just going to avoid Spokane. We can’t afford to have people avoid Spokane at the Davenport,” Worthy said.
Visit Spokane, a nonprofit that markets the region to visitors, urged city leaders to address issues “with compassion,” and said it would support the solutions proposed in “Curing Spokane” if they are viable.
But the organization expressed concern that those planning a visit to Spokane would come across the video. As of Thursday afternoon, the video had more than 8,000 views on YouTube.
“If a meeting planner comes to Spokane and doesn’t feel safe, they’ll likely take their business elsewhere,” said Meg Winchester, Visit Spokane president and CEO.
Sheehan acknowledged issues but said “we have to address the issues head on” and not via the criminal justice system.
“That’s just a quick, seemingly easy fix, and it never has worked, and it never will work.” Sheehan said. “All it does is move the issues somewhere else.”
Sheehan, who founded the Center for Justice, advocated for an approach that focuses on the source of problems like addiction and homelessness.
“It’s a way more complicated issue than dealing with it through building another jail and moving the STA,” Sheehan said. “Putting somebody in jail is not dealing with the problem.”
The video was released in the midst of a heated campaign for Spokane mayor and several races for City Council. Though he pledged to remain neutral in the mayor’s race, Stone said in an interview on Thursday that he hopes that the video creates a dialogue and is happy the issues are being discussed by candidates.
Stone had previously given $970 to Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart’s campaign.
In an email to Stuckart shortly after the video’s release, Stone notified Stuckart that he was rescinding his previous endorsement and would remain neutral.
“At that time, you were the only candidate that I feel I could support. Now, there are two good candidates that both are taking positive positions on improving the crime in downtown Spokane,” Stone wrote.
In December 2018, prior to Nadine Woodward joining the race, Stuckart welcomed Stone’s endorsement in a post on Facebook.
“He is constantly looking for ways to improve our community by leading smart economic development projects, investing in landscape ideas that strengthen and protect our environment and serving as a strong champion of human rights,” Stuckart wrote.
Now, Stuckart said he is considering returning Stone’s $970 donation.
“I do feel like it’s hard to take money from someone who’s trashing our town so much,” Stuckart said.
If Stuckart wins the election, Stone told him “I will be very pleased to be supportive of you.”
Woodward praised the video, but Stuckart strongly criticized its depiction of the city.
In a statement, Spokane’s current mayor, David Condon, encouraged collaboration in addressing downtown crime and said the city has made “significant law enforcement investments in downtown.”
“Of course, we should look to other cities to learn about successes and challenges,” Condon said. “I, and other city leaders, should use this video as part of the community conversation.”
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