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

Spokane County has grown, and is expected to continue that trend

The view of Spokane Valley as scene from Arbor Crest Wine Cellars on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. Spokane County has grown significantly in the past decade, and that’s not expected to change much. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

In the past decade, Spokane County has experienced an influx of 44,000 residents, some of whom are relocating from higher-priced West Coast cities in search of affordable housing, easier commutes and outdoor activities.

The county population, which stands at more than 512,000, is only expected to grow as Spokane receives nationwide recognition fueled by its frequent appearance on Top 10 lists. Two notable mentions in the past year include Inc. magazine naming the Lilac City one of the best places to start a business and Seattle-based real estate brokerage Redfin declaring the Spokane area is one of four metro areas primed for growth in the next decade because of the affordability of available land.

Spokane County added 7,300 residents in 2019, a 1.4% increase in population compared to a year prior, according to the Washington state Office of Financial Management.

The county’s annual population growth rate has exceeded that of the U.S. every year since 2016 and is close to the state’s growth overall, which was 1.6% last year, said Patrick Jones, executive director of Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis.

“For the first time, we are growing almost as fast as the state of Washington, which is a rapidly growing state,” he said. “That’s a significant trend.”

The Spokane metro area’s percentage growth, to a large degree, is mirrored in Kootenai County, where the number of residents has grown by about 26,000 to more than 165,000 in the past decade.

Today and each of the following four Sundays, The Spokesman-Review will examine growth projections across the region and steps municipal leaders in Spokane, Spokane Valley, the West Plains, north Spokane County and Kootenai County are taking to meet the challenges brought by a growing population.

The series also comes as the U.S. Census count is scheduled to begin April 1. The census, which counts the population of every person in the U.S., is used to draw congressional and legislative districts and determine federal funding allocations.

The region’s gains in employment, wages and population come during a period in which the U.S. economy has grown for 129 consecutive months since June 2009, marking the longest expansion – or period of economic growth – in the nation’s history.

The Spokane Metropolitan Statistical Region, which encompasses Spokane, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, created more than 4,600 jobs annual from 2015 to 2019, according to the Washington state Employment Security Department.

The region could see up to 1.5% growth in employment in 2020, economists say.

“The population growth we’ve experienced is largely a reflection of the job growth we’ve had,” Jones said.

Amazon is expected to open its $181 million fulfillment center later this year on the West Plains, bringing more than 1,500 jobs to the area.

California-based Mullen Technologies is planning to open a 1.3 million-square-foot manufacturing facility in Airway Heights that is expected to bring more than 860 jobs related to the assembly of the Qiantu K50 electric sports car. The facility could eventually expand to create an “energy business park” with potential for 10,000 jobs.

Most observers agree economic drivers such as these are magnets for supporting industries and businesses, and the population growth that comes with a dynamic economy.

But with local economists and business organizations such as the Spokane Association of Realtors projecting a steadily increasing population over the next 10 years, how will the region absorb an influx of new residents? How will it address the need for affordable housing amid growing demand and increasing home prices? How can regional planners stem worsening traffic congestion and maintain what many see as the region’s enviable quality of life?

As the area continues to grow, so does the need for additional and diversified housing options – such as apartments, duplexes and condominiums – along with more single-family housing.

Spokane has become one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation. It’s a seller’s market that often sees multiple offers on a single home, low inventory and increasing prices. The county’s median home price jumped to $260,000 in 2019, compared with $234,900 in 2018, according to the Spokane Realtors group.

But city and county leaders say meeting the area’s housing shortage is hindered by Spokane County’s urban-growth boundary, which can’t be expanded until 2025.

Spokane County adopted an urban-growth area in 2013, which designates development in the boundary as urban and dictates where utilities, such as sewer, can be extended to make way for future growth.

The county entered an agreement in 2016 with state agencies, neighborhood associations and planning advocacy group Futurewise that resolved four lawsuits but limited expansion of the county’s urban-growth boundary.

County Commissioner Al French recently sent a letter asking city leaders to consider rethinking Spokane’s comprehensive plan to address the housing shortage.

In the letter, French raises questions about the plan’s goal of focusing on denser growth in key centers and corridors in the city rather than development on suburban outer borders.

“The lack of buildable lands for the construction of affordable and workforce housing is challenging all of us to adjust to meet the demand,” he wrote.