Riverfront Park, June 2015

5 Ways to Improve Spokane

It’s All About Fundamentals —

Below is a list of five things Spokane can do to improve basic services.


Master the Basics

There are vast swaths of Spokane – entire neighborhoods – that desperately need just the basics. It confounds me, like it does many residents, why this facet of managing the public domain appears to be so complicated, particularly when it all seems so simple:

  • Make sure streets are in good repair.
  • Make sure pedestrians have a safe place to walk.
  • Make sure cyclists have a safe place to ride.
  • Beautify the public realm.
  • Maintain it all.


Stop the Tail from Wagging the Dog

The local police, fire, and civil service unions serve as important firewalls between the ideologically driven whims of politicians and the employees they represent.

There are times, however, when unions appear disproportionately influential when it comes to driving public decision making. The distinction between what is in the best interest of a given union and what is in the best interest of the City is, from time to time, quite clear. In such instances, it is incumbent upon elected officials to lead the discussion (rather than the other way around).


Throw Away the Zoning Code

The present zoning code is a zig-zag of complicated, often irrational processes. With its philosophical roots dated way back to the 1920s, it’s safe to say it’s time for a clean slate. I’ll save the details for a future post but, for now, here are the four foundational principals that a new zoning code should strive toward, and that 21st century cities have already applied:

  • Simplicity
  • Form over Function
  • Predictability
  • Transparency


Replace GSI and DSP with PDAs

If you are going to conduct the public’s business, then best do it in public.

Greater Spokane, Inc. (GSI) is an advocacy organization that portends to be an economic development organization. There is no good reason for the City of Spokane (or any other city in the nation) to delegate the public’s economic development business to a private, membership (and sponsorship) driven advocacy organization. Business-oriented, membership driven advocacy organizations are called chambers of commerce.

Charity and fundraising don’t drive economic development, the market does. It’s the public’s job to identify gaps in the market that, if filled, will stimulate economic development (however you might define it).

Similarly, the business of fostering a safe, healthy, dynamic, and growing downtown urban environment is also the public’s job. The Downtown Spokane Partnership (DSP) manages something north of $1 million per year in public assessments (otherwise known as taxes), yet they are also a private, membership (and sponsorship) driven organization that competes in the same sandbox as GSI (not to mention Visit Spokane) for charitable contributions. Year after year, as sure as the late summer winds blow, they compete with GSI and Visit Spokane over the same pool of donors. They pick over the same bushes, they exaggerate the same data, they kiss the same asses, and they take credit for the same ‘ole stuff. When it’s all said and done, everyone needs a shower. My goodness, it’s exhausting! Not to mention, unnecessary. DSP’s assessment revenue is market driven. Concentrate on growing downtown, and your assessments will rise. Dispense with the fundraising.

PDAs can hire and fire employees, take out debt, enter into contracts, sue and be sued, and can do just about anything that a city can do, but for a few big exceptions: they can’t raise taxes, they can’t condemn property, and their board is appointed by City Council. All meetings are open to the public, agendas and minutes are published, and contracts, budgets, emails, and all documents produced by the organization are public documents – just as it should be when you’re conducting the public’s business.

The best part is the practice of fundraising and charity — with all the incest that comes with it — will detach from Spokane’s economic development environment.


Empower Neighborhood Organizations (here we go again with the PDAs)

Top to bottom, the City’s neighborhood councils are comprised of local residents and business owners with big hearts and appetites to move their neighborhoods forward. But they face many challenges. They have no money, they have no direct employees, they have little to no legal authority, and their influence at City Hall is diluted amongst all other neighborhood organizations.

Empowering neighborhood organizations by transitioning them into public development authorities (PDAs) establishes a legal foundation that provides real authority to move a neighborhood forward, not to mention provides a mechanism to build and manage public revenue streams (with the help of City Council).

If neighborhood PDAs are established, rather than having simply an advocacy relationship with City Hall, it will evolve into a business relationship, and that’s the sure footing neighborhoods need to move improvements forward.