BEA Trading Areas

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle –

The Boise State University football program has a lot in common with Gonzaga University men’s basketball program. Both programs suffered from decades of quiet, mediocre teams before bursting into the national sports psyche forcing east-coast-biased pundits to reorient their perspectives a bit more westerly. Ian Johnson’s Statue of Liberty, trick play, two-point conversation to win the 2007 Fiesta Bowl did just as much for the Boise area as Casey Calvary’s tip-in with four seconds remaining to beat Florida and advance to the Elite-8 in the 1999 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Boise State football is to the Boise area what Gonzaga hoops is to the Spokane area. Both programs provide regular national exposure to their home cities and, without them, both cities would be that much more obscure from a national perspective.

As most of us already know, Spokane and Boise have a lot in common. Metro to metro, we’re both about the same size. We both serve as regional market centers for agricultural, mining, and lumber interests. We both answer to larger market centers (Seattle and Salt Lake City). We both serve as cosmopolitan centers for the surrounding rural hinterlands. We’re both stuck in the awkward pubescent years of growing into (hopefully) dynamic big cities. And if it wasn’t for a couple of university athletic programs, the sliver of national exposure both cities receive would not otherwise exist.

For the purposes of this post, one distinct advantage Spokane has over Boise is the scope and magnitude of regional market influence. Urban Spokane, as a market center, is considered top-tier according to our friends at the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. The map above illustrates the furthest extent of Spokane’s market reach.[i] (Note: Boise is not considered a major trading or economic area and cedes the distinction to Salt Lake City.)

Somewhere in central Idaho and southeastern Oregon, the gravitational pull of Salt Lake City supersedes Spokane’s. Indeed, Spokane’s regional influence encompasses a large portion of the continent. Not only do we share a regional market boundary with Salt Lake (to the south), we also share a market boundary with Minneapolis (to the east), that invisible line is, more or less, the border between Montana and the Dakotas. Not to mention, Denver shares the other end of our southern market boundary. To the north, Spokane’s market goes international. Though not illustrated on the maps, Calgary is the next big city up and it’s a lot simpler for many Canadians to cross the border and drive into Spokane rather than drive north into the dusty high plains. And, of course, Seattle and Portland control our western flank.

Most locals know full well the gravity of Spokane’s regional influence, although sometimes we do need a reminder. Over the course of 2011 and 2012, Visit Spokane, the quasi-governmental entity responsible for spending hotel tax dollars to attract tourists to the metro, contracted a study to identify the most significant factors that influence tourism and visitation. Judy Randall and her team from the North Carolina based Randall Travel Marketing conducted the study. Amongst a myriad of findings, perhaps the most significant to Randall was Spokane’s revisitation rate. A whopping 68.41% of visitors are return visitors and, almost unbelievably in Randall’s mind, of those return visitors their average number of prior visits was north of 20.[ii] Not surprisingly, Randall also noted that, “RTM considers Spokane one of the great ‘undersold’ destinations in the Northwest.”[iii]

Randall attributes Spokane’s off the charts revisitation to the gravity of Spokane as a regional center – what she dubbed in a presentation to civic leaders, myself included, as “The Golden Circle.” I suspect geographer Donald Meinig, Ph.D., would agree with Randall. Meinig was able to capture what many long-time locals already instinctually know, and what a tourism expert from North Carolina quickly discovered: “The Inland Empire and Spokane are among the clearest examples of a region and its capital, yet Spokane and the Inland Empire are among the least known cities and regions in all of America.”[iv]

Yet for all of Spokane’s regional influence, much of our economic potential is splintered into different interests at different state houses. It’s Boise that calls the shots over about one-sixth of our metro population. Regionally, Helena, Salem, Edmonton, and Victoria dictate governmental objectives to the further flung corners of Spokane’s market sphere. Not to mention, from a practical perspective, those in Olympia always have a hard time peering over the Cascades.

Different state (and province) houses in different cities that serve different regions translate to a competitive disadvantage for regional Spokane. Spokane’s political-economic interests are difficult to represent when they’re fractionalized, splintered, and far-flung.

There are many examples of the dysfunction that stems from splintered political boundaries. Take, for the sake of familiarity, the case of Visit Spokane. Being responsible to attract visitors to the metro creates complicated marketing scenarios. Staffers (and the board) must not only navigate between different municipal interests (and varying degrees of quality attractions thereof) but also must consider the degree to which to market north Idaho amenities. There’s a lot of lakes and ski areas in north Idaho (not to mention Silverwood), but they don’t butter Visit Spokane’s bread from a revenue perspective, only localized Spokane County taxes can do that (i.e., the local lodging tax). However, the strength of regional Spokane from a marketing perspective is significantly increased if one adds all those north Idaho amenities. Thus, to the extent Visit Spokane adds the muscle of north Idaho tourist attractions to their marketing campaigns, Spokane county tax payers are footing the bill and thereby providing a marketing subsidy to north Idaho. The door, however, swings both ways because Kootenai County tax payers are also responsible for stimulating many tourism arrivals into Spokane International Airport.

In the formative years of our region, local business leaders knew all too well the functional liabilities created by drawing political boundaries independent of economic boundaries. There was much frustration in 1865 when Lewiston, about 120 miles south of Spokane on the Idaho side of things, lost its territorial capital designation to Boise.[v] (Lewiston held the distinction for all of two years.) As the region’s population grew, and the market matured, policies were advocated urging leaders at all levels to create a state that better resembled the practical realities of regional Spokane’s market sphere. Such advocacy coincided with a national dialogue about how to draw boundaries for the increasing number of proposed western states.

Civil War veteran and one-armed explorer of the American West, John Wesley Powell, was the most prominent advocate for drawing state boundary lines that coincided with the practical realities of the West’s diverse landscapes, chiefly river basins. Powell knew better than any bureaucratic surveyor in Washington, DC, or congressmen for that matter, that the West, aside from up-sloping mountain ranges, is more sage brush and arroyos than anything resembling something east of the hundredth meridian.

Powell spent the bulk of the latter 1800s advocating for thoughtful state boundary lines. Somewhat ironically, he also served as the director of the US Geological Survey from 1881 to 1894—the nation’s official mapmaker. The argument that won the day was, as Timothy Egan, a Spokane native and prominent writer, points out: “A popular idea, accepted by most policy makers at the time, was that rain followed the plow.”[vi] Thus, as the rain-soaked fields of Iowa migrated westward with the homesteaders, so too would Iowa’s climate. “All that was needed to make the desert bloom, it was felt, was to dig up the earth and plant something of agricultural value…”[vii]

Regional Spokane’s advocacy for drawing a practical state boundary for itself coincided well with Powell’s arguments back in Washington, DC. In 1888, Spokane’s advocacy crescendoed, for the time being, within the halls of congress.[viii] Both chambers passed legislation by which the Idaho Panhandle would combine with eastern Washington to become their own distinct state (likely the 42nd in the union).[ix] In the end, one man stood between an alternative history for regional Spokane’s political potential and what Spokane is today. With the stroke of his veto pen, President Cleveland disposed of Spokane’s full potential to the scrap pile of history (one of 584 vetoes during his presidency). Instead, in 1889, Washington became the 42nd state, while Idaho became the 43rd state in 1890, forever complicating the practical realities of Spokane’s gravitational pull.

Today, from top to bottom, every agency in the region is haunted by President Cleveland’s poor judgment. As Kootenai County (namely Coeur d’Alene) matures into an international resort destination with high population growth rates, the need for regional economic planning is only intensified. Between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, both cities host a platoon of economic development professionals yet none can cross that invisible state line, despite our interwoven economic relationship.

If economic developers and tourism professionals have it bad, transportation planners have it even worse. Being the little brother is always tough on the ego, and leaders in Kootenai County are no exception. Just as Spokane generally distrusts Seattle, leaders in Coeur d’Alene generally distrust Spokane, even when it hurts their own best interests. Back in 2002, results from the 2000 Census confirmed that Spokane and Coeur d’Alene officially passed the benchmark to become a combined metropolitan statistical area.

This distinction is significant and triggers opportunities for increased federal funding, primarily for transportation projects. Federal funding is contingent upon Census designation, population (and various aspects of it, such as commuter travel), and the organization of a regional planning council (RPC) to oversee how tax money is spent and to identify regional priorities.

In order to receive federal funding, an RPC must be in place with at least 75% of an urban population represented.[x] In late 2002, Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Spokane Valley, and their numerous suburban neighbors had an opportunity to become statistically united. Supporters cited statistical consolidation would lump the Spokane – Coeur d’Alene area in with cities like Colorado Springs and Boise and would also tip the region’s population over the critical 500,000 benchmark.[xi] The perks of consolidation not only included potential federal funds, but also the added clout of being a large enough urban area to help attract corporate attention. Spokane City Council jumped on board alongside several other smaller regional municipalities. Coeur d’Alene, however, was hesitant.

Ironically, it was the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce that led the charge against consolidation. Fear of losing municipal autonomy and local identity drove public opinion. As William R. Dodge stresses in his book Regional Excellence, education is key in the opening stages of a regional dialogue.[xii] According to Dodge, “In sum, citizen distrust undermines our fledgling sense of regional community.”[xiii]

Coincidently, about 120 miles down the state line in the Lewiston/Clarkston Valley, about the same time leaders in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene were considering statistical consolidation, there was also a push for a regional planning council. Lewiston, Idaho, crossing the population threshold to capture the distinction of central urban area and its little brother, just across the Snake River, Clarkston, Washington, not far behind. Although only separated by the Snake River, those that reside in the “LC Valley” are all too aware of significant pros and cons regarding what side of the river you choose to live. On the Lewiston side, lower property and sales taxes translate to increased activity from national retailers and, therefore, act as boons to the city’s tax base—capturing their own regionalized market. On the Clarkston side, the city captures the region’s low-income population because welfare, food stamps, and public health benefits in Washington sure do pay better than they do in Idaho. Thus, the Clarkston sales tax dollar leaks to Lewiston and the Lewiston low-income population leaks to Clarkston.

Being new to the game of regional planning, residents of the LC Valley were skeptical of its virtues. At a Clarkston City Council meeting one resident proclaimed that planning organizations were founded by “a bunch of socialists and Reds.”[xiv] Back in the Coeur d’Alene area, the rhetoric was less intense but fed, nevertheless, by an equal amount of ignorance: “There are just too many imponderables and too many unknowns for us to feel comfortable going ahead with this designation,” said the president of the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce, the city’s chief proponent for economic development.[xv]

Nevertheless, Kootenai County was designated an Urbanized Area in 2003 by the Census Bureau. Although local leaders could waylay statistical consolidation with their big brother to the west for another decade, urban designations from the Census Bureau required localized formulation of a metropolitan planning organization (MPO). But without the local bureaucratic infrastructure in place, developing, organizing, and laying the foundation for a new regional planning organization was farmed out to, you guessed it, the Spokane Regional Transportation Council. Allowing a Spokane centric bureaucracy to administer processes for Kootenai County appeared to have achieved exactly what the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce and Kootenai County Commissioners were trying to avoid— Spokane control. Nonetheless, despite the folly of appearances, Kootenai County pressed on and eventually established their very own metropolitan planning organization (and I won’t even mention where their current director used to work). Thus, from a regional transportation planning perspective, evidently all roads stop at the state line.

Lincoln State
The proposed State of Lincoln, 1907.

Although President Cleveland killed regional momentum in the late 1880s, it began to grow again in the early 1900s. By 1907, Greater Spokane, Inc’s predecessor, the Spokane Chamber of Commerce, published a proposal that once again urged policy makers to combine the Idaho Panhandle with eastern Washington.[xvi] The proposed state name was Lincoln and, not coincidently, it meshed quite well with what the Bureau of Economic Analysis characterizes as Basic Economic Areas—the next tier down from Major Economic Areas.[xvii] That is to say, the boundaries of Lincoln State reflected well the boundaries of Spokane’s immediate economic geography, even by today’s standards.[xviii]

Richard Hutchinson, who represented Spokane in the state legislature as both a senator and a representative, took up the Chamber’s cause to create the State of Lincoln. As late as 1915, Hutchinson “…stirred up controversy with the introduction of a joint memorial calling for the creation of a new state, Lincoln.”[xix]

The 1907 proposal by the Spokane Chamber of Commerce was the last time significant local political muscle attempted to coalesce around creating a new state. However, the notion has lingered throughout the years and occasionally the discussion is rekindled, just with far less business support. Throughout the course of the 1980s and 90s, proposals to create a new state, this time called Columbia, have been floated by both academics and citizens for differing reasons—one being outlined above and the other being to create a state that better reflects the areas more conservative ideologies.

As recently as January, 2015, Spokane Valley Representative Matt Shea was the prime sponsor of a bill within the Washington State Legislature to form a bipartisan task force that would divvy-up the state’s assets and redraw the state lines to better reflect “…the lifestyles, culture and economies of Eastern and Western Washington…”[xx] But without the support of north Idaho legislators introducing similar bills in Boise, simply cutting the State of Washington in half does little to address the economic development potential of Spokane and its hinterlands.

Whatever the reasoning, from an economic development perspective, strengthening Spokane’s regional market sphere is good policy. Splintered political interests are efficient at taking good ideas and making them worse. Distrust between municipal interests is only heightened by poorly drawn state lines.

Alas, the promise of one tight-knit market region all within the same state boundary has yet to materialize. Until it does, the market potential of regional Spokane will be handicapped by irrational state lines drawn in an era when politicians believed rain would magically appear if someone planted crops in the desert. Katherine Morrissey sums it up well in her book Mental Territories: Mapping the Inland Empire, “In one sense, the Inland Empire has not disappeared—it persists as a region-based construct—altered and reshaped over the years. Yet in another sense, the Inland Empire never materialized: the desired control over time and place remained frustratingly elusive.”[xxi]



Works Cited

[i] Federal Communications Commission. Major Trading Areas, Major Economic Areas. Accessed 01/31/14.

[ii] Randall Travel Marketing. Visit Spokane 2012 Tourism Research Study. Available at:

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Meinig, Donald W. Spokane and the Inland Empire: Historical Geographic Systems and a Sense of Place. Washington State University Press. 1991.

[v] Library of Congress. Spokane People Demand Brand New Western State. Originally published by the Washington Times, April 22, 1907.

[vi] Egan, Timothy. Lasso the Wind. First Vintage Departures Edition. 1999.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Library of Congress. Spokane People Demand Brand New Western State. Originally published by the Washington Times, April 22, 1907.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Lee, Sandra L. Delegates Determined to Develop Consensus. The Lewiston Morning Tribune. (exact date unknown)

[xi] Becky Cramer and John Stucke. Combined Statistical Area Killed. The Spokesman Review. November 28, 2002.

[xii] Dodge, William R. Regional Excellence: Governing Together to Compete Globally and Flourish Locally. National League of Cities. Washington D.C. 1993.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Lee, Sandra L. Saying ‘No’ could Mean No Federal Dollars. The Lewiston Morning Tribune. Feb 7, 2003.

[xv] Becky Cramer and John Stucke. Combined Statistical Area Killed. The Spokesman Review. (exact date unknown)

[xvi] Library of Congress. Spokane People Demand Brand New Western State. Originally published by the Washington Times, April 22, 1907.

[xvii] US Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis. New BEA Economic Areas 2004. Accessed 01/31/2014.

[xviii] Proposed State of Lincoln map recreated by Mike Tedesco. Originally published by the Washington Times, April 22, 1907.

[xix] Roach, Mathew. Grant County Goes from Abraham, Lincoln to George, Washington. Published May 7, 2012. Accessed 02/01/2014.

[xx] Camden, Jim. New bill suggests splitting Washginton in half. The Spokesman Review. Published January 29th, 2015. Accessed March 22, 2015.

[xxi] Morrissey, Katherine G. Mental Territories: Mapping the Inland Empire. Cornell University Press. 1997.