Fifty years ago, the Spokane City Council held its collective nose and voted unanimously to tax businesses in order to save the possibility of hosting a world’s fair.
Bill Youngs, the history professor at Eastern Washington University who literally wrote the book on Expo ‘74, remembers Spokane banker Maurice Hickey, who put the politically difficult vote in precisely those terms.
“He said the tax was about as popular as a skunk at a garden party,” said Youngs, who interviewed Hickey ahead of publication of his 1996 book, “The Fair and the Falls.”
The vote on Sept. 20, 1971 was a response to the failure of a $5.7 million levy election three weeks prior. That money was needed to begin clearing downtown Spokane of the railyards and tracks that had crisscrossed and obscured the Spokane River Falls for decades. Then-Spokane Mayor David Rodgers would later say the courage of the council’s vote, even though members called the tax “vicious,” “lousy” and “unfair,” had rescued the city from the brink of losing what has become one of its largest claims to fame.
Days before that vote, however, there was also an effort to save the fair by those designing the potential downtown expo site .
David Evans, one of the architects working on Expo ‘74, said the mood was glum the day after the Aug. 31 levy vote. The city had given a majority of its support – 57% of ballots cast – to the idea, but tax increases required 60% approval to pass.
“When the bond issue failed, Expo corporation called us all together, all of us that had been working, and said that this was the end for us,” Evans said from his home in the South Perry district last week. “They provided us with certificates of appreciation and that was it.”
The Expo corporation was an entity headed by Roderick Lindsay and King Cole that did much of the promotional and fundraising work to bring the fair to Spokane.
Evans and another architect, Jim Waymire, formed a different group known as the “Community Celebration Committee” and began calling around to see if they could organize a demonstration of enthusiasm for Expo. At noon the Friday before the council’s vote, Sept. 17, the plaza beneath the Parkade parking garage was filled with performers, both amateur and professional, from noon until late into the night.
“We called all these people, and all of them said yes,” Evans said, pointing to a list of nightclubs, churches, schools and other organizations that agreed to offer up their talent for the evening.
Local rock groups, college students and the Calvary Baptist Church choir performed at the free event, which also included appearances from the city’s firefighters along with their engine. One of the night clubs that lent their talent was the Front Street Revue, which happened to be hosting a pop-soul trio named Hues Corporation that had formed two years prior in California. Three years after appearing at the Parkade, and during the summer of Expo ‘74, the group’s single “Don’t Rock the Boat” reached No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard charts.
“I think what we hoped for, with the celebration, was that this was what’s going to be happening out there,” Becky Evans, David’s wife, who also helped organize the event, said.
Not everyone was thrilled with the demonstration. A City Council candidate running against Councilman John H. Winston accused the city of favoritism in allowing the event to take place at all.
Patrick K. Stiley “implied that the city had not required Expo ‘74’s ‘middle class rock festival’ to meet specifications of the city’s rock festival ordinance,” The Spokesman-Review reported the following day.
Winston voted for the tax and was the runaway victor in the primary election that followed. Stiley finished third.
David Evans remembered the response being universally positive.
“I would say that it was very well-received. The community supported it. The police department supported it. The fire department supported it,” he said. “I think that kind of helped keep Expo on the forefront of things.”
Council members still hadn’t made up their minds, even as they gathered that Monday to pass the tax. In many ways, the arguments against the tax, and Expo as a concept, mimicked the types of arguments that would be brought up decades later as elected officials debated whether to build the downtown stadium and replace the aging Joe Albi facility in northwest Spokane.
“Nobody, so far, has asked the people of Spokane if they want an Expo, if they want hordes of people clogging our town,” wrote John D. Larson, in a lengthy letter published in the Aug. 16, 1971, issue of The Spokesman-Review. “Nobody has asked the residents of the northwest section of the city if they want the Stadium parking area turned into a camping area, complete with noise, dust and traffic jams.”
The council members, however, were spurred in part by business leaders, who with modifications to the proposal agreed to pay the tax.
“If you go back into the details, it was basically downtown business folk who, even initially before they said anything about a world’s fair, realized they had to do something,” Youngs said.
Concessions included sunsetting the tax when it collected the $5.7 million to begin the clearing work downtown, and also that the tax would apply to all firms doing business in town, not just those based within the city limits.
The effect of the vote was immediate. The next day, the U.S. Commerce Department reacted favorably in the pages of the Spokane Chronicle to the vote, noting that it showed “solid evidence that the interests of Spokane business carries through the community.” That was important, because the Commerce Department had become involved more in the process of hosting international expositions following passage of a 1970 federal law.
Four of the council members who voted in favor of the tax were up for reelection in the September primary the next day. They all emerged victorious.
Becky Evans said it was the first step in the changing tide of people’s attitudes toward the world’s fair, which became much more evident when ticket sales began three years later.
“We also had a lot of fairly conservative friends who voted it down,” she said. “They were also the first ones to get their season tickets, and they were there every day.”
David Evans, for his part, downplays his own significance in persuading city leaders to push forward with plans for Expo ‘74. He didn’t even remember the concert taking place so close to that vote, and even with its approval, the work continued unabated on designing the pavilions for the world’s fair. He cited the words of his former boss, the fair’s executive architect, Tom Adkison.
“He said, ‘You can accomplish a lot if you don’t need a lot of credit for it and are willing to be in the shadows,’” Evans recalled. “And that’s been my motto ever since.”