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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Front & Center: Lars Gilberts is helping create a destination for innovation in Spokane’s University District

Lars Gilberts, CEO of the University District Development Association, stands near the University District Bridge and the Catalyst Building, two critical pieces in the district’s plan to grow higher education and business together. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

When Lars Gilberts assumed the role of CEO for the University District Development Association in 2017, his focus was bringing people together to make the U-District an innovation hub.

Since then, Gilberts has built and strengthened relationships with community partners as well as helped advance projects to completion, such as the University District Gateway Bridge that connects the district’s universities to planned development near East Sprague Avenue.

The U-District has benefited from more than $1 billion in public and private investment, which includes infrastructure improvements, more than a dozen new institutional buildings and construction of the Catalyst building, a project of Avista Corp. and McKinstry.

There’s more than $100 million of private development underway and $100 million in public infrastructure planned for the next three years in the district.

Gilberts aims to continue building on a “momentum initiative” created by Spokane regional leaders in 1987 to transform what was once a desolate rail yard into a world-class University District for students and researchers.

“All the work I’ve been doing for the last two and a half years, it really matters now,” Gilberts said. “And, that’s helping the community see what is happening in the University District.”

Creating partnerships

Gilberts, who grew up in Clayton, Washington, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a specialization in marketing from the University of Texas Pan-American. He also holds a master’s degree in business management from Barry University in Florida.

Gilberts worked in various roles – including director of financial stability – at Branches Inc., a Florida-based nonprofit organization that helps people achieve financial wellness and start businesses.

While at Branches Inc., Gilberts developed financial-coaching, employment-assistance and tax-preparation programs, among other things. He remained at Branches for 10 years before accepting a position as a statewide Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed director for the United Way of Broward County in 2014.

“What I became known for in that decade was pulling people together to achieve something they could never do on their own,” he said.

Gilberts was working on a project that required him to relocate to a larger market. He considered moving to Washington, D.C., Atlanta or Seattle. Then he saw an advertisement for what was then an executive director position at the University District Development Association in Spokane.

“Spokane was always home for me. I always wanted to be able to come back here, not just to visit, but to live,” Gilberts said. “But there weren’t always the professional opportunities. Whenever I looked in the past, there were never jobs that wouldn’t require me starting a whole new career. So, (the executive director position) really seemed to line up with what I was doing and I tossed my hat in the ring.”

Preparing for growth

Gilberts arrived in Spokane in April 2017 as the University District Development Association was “pivoting” and the organization’s projects were ready for leadership.

Gilberts said he wanted to work with the organization’s board of directors to prepare them for rapid growth.

The organization and the University District Public Development Authority have separate boards, but work together. The University District Development Association facilitates revitalization, while the University District PDA focuses on infrastructure improvements.

“Telling the story of the University District and helping people understand what it is and where it is … that was the big thing for me, because something I’m really passionate about is helping people to do good while doing well,” Gilberts said.

Although the University Gateway Bridge was under development, Sprague Avenue needed improvement.

“The guts of Sprague (Avenue) hadn’t been touched in over 100 years. The surface hadn’t been touched since 1985,” he said. “How do you attract global businesses, how do you invest hundreds of millions of dollars into an area that looks really challenged?”

The University District PDA invested $4 million toward a second phase of the Sprague Avenue revitalization from Grant to Scott streets. The second phase is slated for completion next year.

The project calls for new sidewalks and pavement, reducing the street from four lanes to two with a center turn lane, elevated STA bus shelters and replacement of a water transmission pipe below the street that’s been in use since 1894.

The University District Gateway Bridge and Sprague Avenue improvements are expected to spur an estimated $500 million in new development within five years, Gilberts said.

“It’s from that we create more jobs, create more opportunity and keep the momentum going,” Gilberts said. “Spokane has been great at one-offs. We have a lot of amazing leaders right now looking at creating a track record of success and not just creating one-offs.”

An address

of innovation

In addition to providing leadership and forming partnerships to complete projects, Gilberts wants to help expand the health care and life sciences sector in the University District.

“For me, this is not about trying to make Spokane double in size in the next 20 years but rather that the innovations happening here create opportunities out in the Valley, on the West Plains, in Deer Park and in Colville,” he said.

The University of Washington forged a regional health partnership with Gonzaga University in 2016 to expand medical education and research, and Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine opened in 2017. Those partnerships attracted more first-year medical students to Spokane than that of Seattle’s University District.

McKinstry is building a $60 million, 80,000-square-foot building at 840 E. Spokane Falls Blvd. that will be the new home for the University of Washington School of Medicine-Gonzaga University Regional Health Partnership. The building is slated to be completed by 2022.

Gilberts said future goals for the University District are to add more market-rate housing and parking. Four market-rate housing projects are breaking ground next year in the district, he added.

Another goal is to examine potential for transit-oriented development in the University District along Spokane Transit Authority’s proposed 6-mile Central City Line.

“I want the University District to be clearly seen as the address of innovation in Spokane, where business and education grow together,” Gilberts said. “Throughout this year, I want people to come experience Spokane through the University District.”