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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A new mayor, an old promise to improve Spokane’s permitting process: Will Brown be the one to do it?

At a press conference Tuesday, Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown announces a new initiative to address a longstanding problem with the city’s permitting processes creating unnecessary delays and obstacles to development.  (Emry Dinman/The Spokesman-Review)

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that a new Spokane mayor will try to streamline the city’s permitting process.

In 2011, Mayor Mary Verner promised to work with the Downtown Spokane Partnership to clean up the city’s “change of use” process, which at least one business called a nightmare. The next year, incoming Mayor David Condon’s transition team recommended he expand on those efforts. In 2021, Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration proposed making permitting more efficient as a small part of the city’s efforts to boost housing stock.

Now, with the region trying to position itself for significant federal investment into industrial development in the aerospace sector, Mayor Lisa Brown has launched her own initiative to streamline the permitting process and reduce barriers to attracting new and expanding companies, hoping to set the Spokane-region apart from other areas in the country competing for the same federal money.

On Wednesday, she signed an executive order creating a “rapid response team” and assigning case managers to priority projects, such as aerospace, manufacturing and research and development, in order to make permitting more efficient and identify chronic issues that create delays or otherwise add obstacles to development.

The rapid response team will make recommendations for systemwide improvements that could benefit development not considered priority projects, said Steve MacDonald, the city’s director of community and economic development. He added that the current focus was not on reducing fees but rather on time efficiency and removing antiquated policies.

“There are processes that have been adopted over the years, all with good intention, that may not serve their purpose now,” he said.

The rapid response team will be pulled from existing staff, at least initially, with no new hires expected as part of the initiative, MacDonald added.

“Based on what we find from what works and maybe what doesn’t work,” MacDonald said. “Well, we’re gonna be able to determine whether we need to add additional people to that existing team.”

Local developers and business leaders are tentatively encouraged by Brown’s focus on this issue, saying the process to get a building permit does need to be easier. Jake Mayson, director of public policy for Greater Spokane Inc., noted that onerous permitting can drive away new businesses.

“Permitting is a very common sticking point for a lot of businesses in the area,” he said. “They ask about the time to project completion… especially specialized commercial spaces; that’s a huge consideration.”

“It’s a very positive thing that the city realizes it’s a problem and that they’re making a special effort to address some of the issues,” said Jim Frank, the semi-retired founder of the Greenstone Corporation, the developer that built Kendall Yards.

However, unless it comes with systemic reform, Frank is skeptical that Brown’s initiative will make needed improvements.

“There should be no need for a rapid response team if you have a good permitting process,” he said. “I hope that they’re looking deeply at the code and how it can be simplified and streamlined, and that this isn’t just a Band-Aid on a system that really does need significant revision.”

Mayson added that a major investment would be needed to make a significant change in permitting times.

“It’s not always a matter of working smarter,” he said. “There are more resources needed in that space to speed things up, and the workforce in those spaces is highly specialized.”

“We’ll have to see where the rubber meets the road on this kind of stuff, because the devil’s in the details,” he added.