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9 Ways to Improve Spokane’s Economic Health

Nine Simple Economic Development Strategies to Improve Spokane —

Below is a simple economic development plan for the City of Spokane and, indeed, for the metro. A few items on the list may perhaps be challenging to implement. Nonetheless, it’s nothing a little verve and creativity can’t solve.


1: Dispel with the notion that fundraising, grant writing, and advocating for special appropriations is economic development.

This one generally speaks for itself. I know I’ve said this in a previous posting, but fundraising, grant writing, and generally asking other people for money is not an economic development strategy; to the contrary, it’s what you do when you don’t have an economic development strategy.


2: Diversify economic development strategies to include quality of life factors that attract millennials, entrepreneurs, footloose professionals, and artists.

As it stands, asking the state for roughly $1 billion to finish the North/South Corridor, attempting to attract (with other people’s money and land) aerospace manufactures to develop around the airport, and lobbying the DOD for a new Fairchild tanker squadron appear to be the only big whales Greater Spokane, Inc., knows how to hunt.

Old economic development strategies are going to get us just that: the old economy. Don’t get me wrong, freeway building, base building, and attracting manufacturers were pretty hip ideas in the 1950s. However, if we want to be a 21st century city, we better start adopting 21st century strategies. A good start begins with understanding what quality of life means from an economic development perspective. With roughly 20-years worth of literature on the subject, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out.


3: Develop and implement a marketing campaign aimed toward increasing Spokane’s lack-luster diversity.

This one is different yet related to Strategy 2 above. Ninety-percent of Spokane County is white, 2.3% is Asian, 1.9% is black, and 1.7% is native American (data from Census Bureau). Diversity is now a significant factor when measuring the economic health and vibrancy of urban areas. As eluded to in the Inlander, when John Stewart leads off his show with the Rachel Dolezal story by saying, “”Whaaaat? That’s crazy. There’s an NAACP chapter in Spokane?” –we have some work to do to change the nation’s (mostly correct) perception of our community. Developing a more well-rounded color palette is a great tool to create a dynamic picture. As it stands, 90% of our picture is simply cobalt white.


4: Get into the retail recruitment (and retention) game.

Of all the strategies on this list, retail recruitment has the most direct benefit to the general fund. Remember the old Costco on 3rd? It captured the South Hill’s sales tax dollar as well as attracted Valley shoppers (and beyond). Now, after Costco relocated to the Valley, the exact opposite is true — South Hill money leaks to the Valley and the City lost all those Valley shoppers — a double hit to the general fund.

Like shopping at H&M? They wanted to be downtown first. Like Whole Foods? Word on the street is they’re shopping around for a location. Who from the City ensures retailers choose Spokane over our municipal neighbors? What other retailers are out there that don’t have a presence in the market? What other retailers are out there that we want in the market?

Cities throughout the country have retail attraction strategies and Spokane needs to get off the bench and into the game.


5: Establish neighborhood public development authorities and provide market-driven revenue mechanisms to help underwrite their efforts.

Every neighborhood in the City is represented by a neighborhood council. The individuals who sit on these boards are from their respective neighborhoods and care deeply about the future of them. The challenge they all face always comes down to money. By transitioning these neighborhood councils to PDAs — independent, public legal entities — councils will gain legal authority to pursue objectives within the neighborhoods’ best interest. Hillyard has a PDA. The University District has a PDA. The trick for both entities is to establish market-driven revenue streams to finance their efforts — tax increment financing being chief among them. As it stands, both PDAs are still heavily reliant on the City to help underwrite and kick-start the agencies.


6: Create a port district.

Port districts are PDAs on steroids. Established by a vote of the people, port district board members are also elected by the people. Primary revenue for the agency is generated through a new property tax. More sophisticated port districts have created revenue mechanisms far beyond property taxes, however. Should Spokane choose to create a port district, it will quickly become the highest profile economic development agency in the metro. And for good reason: unlike other faux economic development agencies in the metro, port districts actually have legal authority to enter into public/private partnerships, as well as revenue to entice and close deals. Importantly, the ballot measure should be written with enough flexibility to advance 21st century economic development strategies.


7: Advance STA’s plan for the Central City Line into a light rail system.

The Central City Line is a classic case of Spokane taking a good idea and turning it into something mediocre. Cities of the future have trains, not rubber tires. We’re better than that.


8: Transition the City’s public parking system into an economic development mechanism.

The City has taken a step or two in this direction but big strides must still be taken. Pasadena took their traditionally managed public parking system and transitioned it into a mechanism that helped revitalize their downtown. The crux of the matter rests on developing truly market driven parking rates — if parking places tend to sit empty all day, rates go down for those spaces. Conversely, when popular spaces are almost 100% occupied throughout the day, rates go up. The goal being to find the prices that give all spaces within the system an 80% occupancy rate. (Eighty-percent being the magic occupancy rate to ensure spaces turnover and new parkers can find a spot.) Upon establishing market-driven rates, surplus revenue (after system expenses) goes back into economic development projects that create even more demand (and revenue) for the system.


9: Move Avista Stadium downtown.

Pilot Field
Buffalo’s Pilot Field is a good example of the benefits that come from moving even minor league teams downtown. (Photo from Buffalo Sports Stadiums and Arenas.)

The goal here is to capture the spin-off benefits of large events. As it stands, being near the County Fairgrounds does not spin-off a whole lot of multipliers. Stadium building downtown certainly isn’t a fresh idea but what’s been learned over time is even minor league venues help create urban energy on game nights.

Ensuring the ball field is integrated into the urban fabric of downtown is integral to maximizing spin-off potential. Looking at other urban, high-impact venues is a good place to start.