Ever Pubescent Spokane –
Let’s begin our journey by developing an understanding of Spokane as a product. Ask different people and they’ll have different perspectives on how best to market the metro. Understandably, “Near Nature, Near Perfect” was a logical choice for a regional slogan. Somewhat ironically, it was the urban advocate Downtown Spokane Partnership who trail-blazed the consensus building process around a new slogan in the early 2000s. According to an article in the Seattle Times that explained why boosters changed from the long-standing “Lilac City” to a slogan that attempts to accentuate Spokane’s natural amenities, “The city of nearly 200,000 could use a self-esteem boost.”[i] According to the article, we were “Stung by rejection and lack of a public image…”[ii] Hence, “Near Nature, Near Perfect” was born. Whether or not the Seattle Times was accurate with its logic behind the slogan change, the question remains: why “Near Nature, Near Perfect” and is it the right slogan for Spokane?
Whether local boosters are conscious of it or not the slogan is the culmination of a national growth trend westward. For much of the American West, the 1990 census represents the beginning of its New Testament. Although Kurt Cobain had yet to smell like teen spirit the West was on the cusp of a transition away from extraction (mining, agriculture, ranching, and lumber), longtime mainstays of Spokane’s economy, into espresso shops, microbreweries, wineries, alternative music, technology, and recreation.
The West as a product was about to be redefined by recreationalist tech-geeks with proclivities toward outdoor space and obscure IPAs. Trendsetting, Gen-X hipsters discovered the mystique of Sagebrush and Ponderosa Pines. In-between episodes of Friends they happily would spend three bucks for a cup of coffee (swankily named a Latte’), take a hit from their bong, turn on the freshest Seattle Alt band, and then wake up in the morning and go to work in their Hawaiian shirts, play Ping-Pong to release their creative energies, all the while earning something close to six figures tinkering around with something called the internet.
We all know what they’re called, although it’s a bit of a cliché now, it still rings true: the Creative Class, and they played no small part in inventing what scholars have dubbed the “New West.” Between 1990 and 2000 rapid growth occurred throughout the New West. From Seattle to San Francisco, Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake, and Denver areas, major metros were bulging at the seams with young, open minded creative energy.
Even the more obscure New West metros managed to get on the growth bus. These are Spokane’s direct brothers and sisters, places like Boise, Colorado Springs, and Albuquerque experienced double-digit percentile growth rates. Spokane, however, seemed to have missed the wave of population growth and sat bobbing in the open water wondering when the next swell was going to roll in and what they had to do to catch it. Changing the city’s slogan to “Near Nature, Near Perfect” was Spokane’s superficial attempt to capitalize on market forces that largely took shape throughout the course of the 1990s. Trouble is city boosters were about 13-years too late.
The New West was changing perceptions and those who reside in ivory towers were taking notice. At the University of Colorado (Boulder), the Center for the American West published the Atlas for the New West in 1997. In it, the authors attempt to define the New West and characterize the changing market as:
The New West lifestyle has a lot to do with well-off new-comers and their consumption patterns. Urban and suburban refugees come to the Interior West looking for salvation from the rat race; they appreciate the rugged landscape, the big sky, the mythical “Wild West,” and opportunities to make money and spend it.[iii]
Although Spokane is only about 300 miles from the cool salt-waters of the Puget Sound, it’s important to make a distinction, as the Atlas for the New West does, between the “Interior West” and the West that includes Bellingham to San Diego. The Cascades and the Sierras are the boundary between two different products. Although economically intertwined it’s unfair to compare Spokane to places like Seattle and Portland. No, Spokane’s slide-rule is east-bound and down within the mountain-rimmed and coulee scabbed reaches of the arid West.
Hipster big cities on the green side of the mountains may stand atop the economic and Creative Class urban hierarchy, by which Spokane does answer to, but don’t mistake laws of economic and cultural geography as a means to dictate Spokane as a product. Because Spokane is subject to the gravitational pull of the Seattle and Portland metros, natural economic and cultural exchanges will, of course, take place. However, as will be discussed in-depth in Essay 3, Spokane’s economic region is among the most distinct in the nation and thereby the autonomy of its central place creates a competitive advantage that most mid-sized metros simply do not have. With the exception of perhaps hosting a professional sports franchise, Spokane can compete on par with the top tear urban destinations in the West.
Joel Garreau noted the distinction between those on Spokane’s side of the mountains and those on the other in 1981 when he published The Nine Nations of North America. In it, Garreau deftly captures both the geographic and cultural distinctions of the Interior West and those that reside on the green side of the mountains, a region he dubs “Ecotopia.”[iv]
Ecotopians, as Garreau explains, “…politically, economically, and socially [are] operating on some fundamentally different assumptions from [their] neighbors’. Most of these assumptions revolve around the more conventional concept of enhancing [their] quality of life.”[v] They care about obscure issues, such as protecting Spotted Owls and Salmon, cutting edge urban design, and helping poor people. There’s a mystique surrounding Ecotopia that the whole nation recognizes (even the world, perhaps). It’s its own product—green, rainy, coffee, flannels, hi-tech, and ethnically diverse. The dense and walkable urban environments quickly give way to snow-capped peaks. The east Asian influence is as significant to Ecotopia as the Hispanic influence is to the Southwest. It’s considered cool to live there, cool to travel there, and cool to be from there.
On the other hand, however, not much is happening on the other side of the Cascades, at least not in Garreau’s 1981 mind. Lovingly dubbed the “Empty Quarter,” the Interior West is lumped-in with such welcoming places as the barren tundra of extreme northern Canada.[vi] Nonetheless, prior to the 1990s and the official transition from the “Old West” to the New West, Garreau captures the national perception of the region by stating: “What it boils down to is that when people talk about the ‘West’ these days, they aren’t really talking about the West. They’re talking about the Empty Quarter.”[vii] Once you trim off Ecotopia and the American Southwest, “What you have left is the Empty Quarter, that repository of values, ideas, memories, and vistas that date back to the frontier. That’s what is really meant by the ‘West’.”[viii]
Even college level Geography text books fail to see a whole lot of value in the Empty Quarter. As late as 1997, during the height of the New West transition, the widely utilized 101 level textbook Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts, dubbed the Interior West, including Spokane, as part of the “Marginal Interior.”[ix] Once again, the authors lovingly lump Spokane in with the inhospitable stretches of the Canadian tundra. Although one could argue that the “Empty Quarter” is a relatively impartial name for a region. The argument of impartiality becomes flimsier when trying to justify the “Marginal Interior.” Such negative titles (and perceptions) act as New West repellent.
Shedding traditional economies and historic cultural inertia is no easy task, which is what makes the transition from “Old West” to “New West” that much more significant. The West grew up in the 1990s. However, as metros like Boise and Salt Lake and Denver and Albuquerque and Colorado Springs were on the cutting edge of trendsetting and defining the New West, Spokane limped along behind them, hanging on to its Empty Quarter and Marginal Interior roots.
Spokane’s lackluster performance during the 1990s culminated on April 2nd, 2001, when the US Census Bureau released the 2000 Census results of the most populated Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) in the country. It was finally official; Boise, Idaho, was now a larger urban place than Spokane. All ego-broken residents of Spokane could do was look to the area’s growth-star; Kootenai County, Idaho, a mere 20 miles from downtown, and hope statistical consolidation provides the numbers needed for the metro to once again become the third largest in the Northwest.
In 1993, Carl Abbott published The Metropolitan Frontier – Cities in the Modern American West by which the professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University explains over the course of several hundred pages the growth of American West cities, their nested hierarchy, and what generally makes the larger ones tick. Abbott constructed an urban hierarchy of the top 12 Western cities that conveniently “fell neatly into three sets.”[xi] At the top were the metros of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and Dallas. The middle tier consisted of Seattle, San Diego, Phoenix, and Denver. And the third was Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio, and Salt Lake.
Urban hierarchies are most easily assembled by utilizing top-tier market indicators, such as professional sports franchises. Abbott’s list is no exception. The top four metros all field the big three seasonal sports—football, basketball, and baseball. The middle four metros can field the big three but there tends to be turnover because of market competition. Who can forget the San Diego Clippers? (I won’t even mention the Sonics.) The final four are just large enough to support one franchise, basketball in all cases. One may make a reasonable assumption that if Abbott were to continue his list, Spokane would be in the next tier. Thus, Spokane yields to Seattle as Boise Yields to Salt Lake as Colorado Springs yields to Denver. Such is the fate of all mid-sized cities, there’s always a bigger and stronger older brother.
Although Spokane is limping along relative to its peers when it comes to population growth, we’re still one of the strongest regional markets in the West. This subject will be delved into much further in the following essay. For now, it’s important to note that among our fellow brethren only Albuquerque, with a metro population of nearly 300,000 greater than Spokane’s, ranks higher in market size.
As the economy journeyed deeper into the 2000s, the only piston in it still firing was real estate. Late ’90s investments in River Park Square and the Davenport area were now paying dividends, Kootenai County and Liberty Lake were booming, and a trendy urban design fad crept into Spokane’s political and real estate development dialectic: New Urbanism. Developers couldn’t renovate historic buildings into condos fast enough. In the 2000s, generally until the real estate crash of 2008, a significant number of historic downtown structures were renovated and reintroduced into the market.
Downtown Spokane benefited from shifting urban market forces. Between relatively scant New West growth, and relatively strong New Urban investments, the region’s densest market center managed to transition from something stale into something fresh and befit of the New West. Heavy hitting investors, both public and private, spurred the transition. The Downtown Spokane Partnership estimates that, since 1999, over $3.7 billion was invested into downtown Spokane real estate projects.[xii]
In 2002, another seminal book captured and defined a significant driver of all this New West, New Urban growth that was taking place: The Rise of the Creative Class. In it, Richard Florida essentially observed and identified a cultural shift, translated by means of output in the labor market from traditional 9:00 to 5:00 work environments to something much more fluid and less formal. According to Florida’s definition, “These people [the Creative Class] engage in complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgment and requires high levels of education and human capital.”[xiii] The Creative Class also places a high value on “experiences,” whether it’s living in a loft above a pub in downtown Boston or hacky-sacking with some hippies in San Francisco, they don’t ask for much. What they crave, and what the rising millennial generation still craves today, is diversity. The Creative Class “…increasingly opt out of places where tradition is more valued and the social norms of the organizational age still prevail.”[xiv] Moreover, “The Creative Class is strongly oriented to large cities and regions that offer a variety of economic opportunities, a stimulating environment and amenities for every lifestyle.”[xv]
Over a decade later those that keep tabs on such things have pointed out that the tender-young 20-something millennials are following in the footsteps of their Gen X and Y Creative Class predecessors. As Jeff Speck, one of the founding fathers of contemporary urban planning, points out:
This group, the millennials, represent the biggest population bubble in fifty years. Sixty-four percent of college educated millennials choose first where they want to live, and only then do they look for a job. Fully 77 percent of them plan to live in America’s urban cores.[xvi]
So when Speck says “…creating a higher quality of life is the first step toward attracting new residents and jobs.”[xvii] Spokane ought to listen. Moreover, it’s not just practicing planners that are considering the merits of Speck’s opinion, it’s academics, too. This point is hammered home in the 2008 book Retooling for Growth: “Success in this new technology- and knowledge-driven economy requires a set of ingredients different from the industrial economy, including, among other things, a skilled work force and an emphasis on quality of life factors…”[xviii]
As the economy bounces back and we’re starring down the barrel of the 2020s, it will be the millennials who guide New Western growth into the next up-cycle. Traditional modes of economic development are just that and thereby ineffective at attracting the pistons that will pump economic energy into metro-Spokane’s future. Buffalo hunting large manufacturers and organizing cluster plans will not be enough to tap into New West growth. For Spokane to take a step forward leaders must recognize what more successful cities have already discovered: old-fashioned economic development strategies are for the old economy. If our goal is to join the New West economy (and I’d like to think that it is), step one includes redefining economic development within the market sphere that captures millennials and creatives.
And now we come full circle back to “Near Nature, Near Perfect.” Dwelling on a simple city slogan may seem trivial but it’s emblematic of a larger challenge that faces the community. The scale of cause and effect accomplishments within Spokane’s political arena has diminished to a point of such insignificance that even fruit as low hanging as changing a slogan takes months of consensus building and, in the end, they still only get it half right and about a decade too late. The New West growth wave already passed Spokane by.
The New West as a product is maturing. Spokane missed the first growth cycle but that doesn’t mean we have to miss the second. The hipster inhabitants that helped define the New West are now middle-aged. Millennials are now the entrepreneurial hope to create and be on the cutting edge of the next expansion cycle. Whether or not Spokane’s aging, baby-booming elite will enable more agile minds to lead, innovate, and take risks will be uncharted emotional territory for the current leadership culture. Let’s hope this time around we catch the first of the growth swells as they roll in rather than the last. Better yet, let’s be the ones that create the swells.
[i] Geranios, Nicholas K, Spokane plays up urban, natural assets. The Associated Press via The Seattle Times. Accessed 10/31/2012. Originally published 11/21/2003. http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20031121&slug=spokane21m
[iii] Riebsame, William E., et al. Atlas for the New West. Center for the American West, University of Colorado at Boulder. W. W. Norton and Company. 1997.
[iv] Garreau, Joel. The Nine Nations of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1981.
[ix] De Blij, H.J. and Muller, Peter O. Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts. Eighth Edition. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1997.
[x] All data courtesy the United States Census Bureau, 2010 National Census: http://www.census.gov
[xi] Abbott, Carl. The Metropolitan Frontier – Cities in the Modern American West. The University of Arizona Press. 1993.
[xii] Downtown Spokane Partnership. Profile Downtown Development. Accessed 12/09/2013. http://www.downtownspokane.org/profile-downtown-development.php
[xiii] Florida, Richard. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life. Basic Books. 2003.
[xvi] Speck, Jeff. The Walkable City: How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012
[xviii] Blackwell, Angela Golver and Radhika Fox. “Promoting Inclusive Economic Renewal in Older Industrial Cities.” Retooling for Growth: Building a 21st Century Economy in America’s Older Industrial Areas. Brookings Institution Press and American Assembly. 2008.