Downtown Spokane April 2016

Toward a 21st Century Spokane

What do prosperous, modern, mid-sized American metros look like? How do we carve a niche that’s different from our competitors? How does a mid-sized city like Spokane distinguish itself from the pack, be unique, be something that others are not?

Spokane, for its part, has generally been stuck in a malaise of mediocrity since Expo-74 – our high-water mark in recent memory. For over 40 years, local folk have pointed to the transformative events of 1974 as the seminal marker in Spokane’s contemporary history. And they are right to do so. The bold decisions that led up to hosting an Expo are truly something to brag about, because it was a time when Spokane’s leaders recognized the need for wholesale land use changes downtown and a catalytic event to stimulate them.

In the years leading up to Expo, Spokane voters defeated several ballot initiatives that would have helped to underwrite the event. Visionaries are tough to deter, however, as King Cole – the man largely credited with driving the vision for Expo – proved by doggedly motivating local political and business leaders to back the project. That visionary leadership paid off as the Expo went forward in its game-changing way.

Here we sit, however, over 40 years later, and local elders still pine for 1974. The economic forces that made Spokane – mining, timber, agriculture – have waned. Most of the sawmills have closed, veins of silver and other minerals have mostly dried out, and agriculture is a far different business today than in the last century. Nineteen-seventy-four was the last time Spokane beat its chest to signal that we are king of the economic jungle, so much so that we demolished our rail-dominated river front and turned it into a park.

Expo-74 was also the contemporary peak of Spokane’s old money influence, back when the second generation of heirs took the reins of family fortunes and demonstrated a willingness to transition Spokane into a better version of itself.

Since then, people have died, money has been dispersed among yet even more heirs, family squabbles have occurred, and fortunes faded. Those old trust funds just don’t generate the same amount of interest income as they used to. Unsurprisingly, as returns on the corpus diminish, so does influence. Today, can anyone think of a legacy family – one of those whose fortunes were built in the late 1800s – that still prominently influences Spokane’s future? I can think of one, but that’s it.

So, here we are, at a crossroads. Spokane old money has either dried up or quietly left the area, the extractive industries that built the fortunes of old Spokane have diminished, and the shimmer is well worn from the events leading up to 1974. We’re struggling to find a 21st century identity that doesn’t feel like we’re just trying to be someone else, like Seattle.

We don’t want to be Seattle (or Portland or San Francisco). The question is not who do we want to be, the question is how do we become a better version of ourself? The answers are numerous and complicated, and they require vision to seize opportunities and tenacity to achieve results. We are at the doorstep of a new era, one in which outside influences might dictate to us what the future holds or, preferably, we can dictate our future to them.

Change is a difficult business, as King Cole noted when he quipped about the three phases of public sector project development:

“1) You’ve got to be kidding! 2) My God, the dummies are going to do it! They’re going to ruin us! 3) They’re doing it and it’s working. Gee, what a great idea I had.”

The future is ours to be had. Let’s seize it.