- Chris Bovey illustration
Last October, the Spokane City Council had to make a choice between what was and what could be. Washington State University's proposal to create a new accredited medical school in Spokane had placed the school into conflict with the University of Washington. UW worried that a new medical school could imperil the funding for an expansion of UW's existing med school.
The council proposed ranking WSU's funding higher than UW's in its list of legislative priorities.
But Steve Stevens, then the recently appointed president of Greater Spokane Inc., stood at a podium in a conservative suit and tie and complained that the proposed prioritization would insult the UW medical students already in Spokane.
"It would send a message that we don't consider them as a part of the community, and appreciate the future health care they would provide," Stevens said.
A half-hour later, City Council President Ben Stuckart prepared to offer his opinion on the med school. But first he took a moment to take a dig at GSI, the organization tasked with both lobbying for existing businesses and attracting new ones. "Half the people on the council haven't even met the new executive director of GSI, yet he's coming up here telling us how to vote on the city's agenda," Stuckart said. "It's really strange the way people lobby us for things."
It's now a year later, and both WSU and UW got the med school funding they wanted. Stevens resigned last month, kicking off a search for the next GSI president. Yet Stuckart's irritation with GSI hasn't subsided.
He says the city of Spokane is the second largest funder of GSI, but that could change. "We have a choice next year to save $130,000 that we funded [GSI] in 2015," Stuckart says. "That could be zero."
Is that a threat?
"It's a fact," Stuckart says. "If re-elected, I will be considering putting our economic development dollars in a different place."
On Oct. 23, Stuckart sent a letter to GSI board chair Christine Johnson, with copies to the mayor, the city council, and the Spokane county commissioners, with a dramatic proposal: Split GSI in two.
"This letter is written to you to convey a concern that I have heard REPEATEDLY over the last two years," Stuckart wrote. He wrote that Stevens' resignation in October made this the perfect time to reassess the organization's role.
In fact, he had two big concerns. First, GSI has a dual role, playing the part of the chamber of commerce — representing existing businesses — and an economic development organization, trying to attract new businesses. Stuckart sees that as a conflict of interest woven into GSI's fabric. What happens when a new business would compete with powerful existing businesses?
"I have seen GSI oppose massive multimillion-dollar projects to protect the interests of current members," Stuckart wrote.
Then there's the frustration Stuckart feels watching GSI, an organization the city helps fund, lobby against the proposals he supports: "Just a pure position it puts me in as a policy maker, when you're asking for money for economic development yet opposing my policies" is a problem, he says.
At a coffee shop last Thursday, Stuckart hands the Inlander a handwritten list of economic development initiatives he feels GSI should have supported. When the city council wanted Washington State University to save the historic Jensen-Byrd building, GSI testified in favor of the plans to demolish it. GSI also asked for a delay in the Spokane Transit Authority plaza's renovation, and stayed neutral on a tax increase to expand bus service.
While GSI didn't officially oppose a council proposal to require that certain businesses provide their employees with sick leave, it asked that the idea be studied more thoroughly, warning it could create "tremendous burdens" for small businesses.
But Stuckart's big example of GSI opposing economic development in service of protecting existing business — its opposition to the Spokane Tribe's proposed casino in Airway Heights — is a complicated one. First of all, until the balance of power on the council shifted after the 2013 election, the city council also opposed the idea.
And while the Kalispel Tribe was concerned about competition hurting the Northern Quest Resort and Casino, that's not the argument that's been made forcefully by GSI, the county commissioners and state and national legislators. They worry that the project's location, directly underneath certain flight paths, could imperil the future of Fairchild Air Force Base. Losing Fairchild, they argue, would be a serious blow to economic development.
Stuckart doesn't believe they're being sincere. He got former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Terry Yonkers on record saying that the project represented an "insignificant disruption to the Fairchild flying mission."
GSI's dual role is a relatively recent one. Rich Hadley, the CEO of Greater Spokane Inc. before Stevens, remembers the discussions that led to the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Spokane Area Economic Development Council merging into GSI back in 2007. Civic leaders researched combining the models, traveling to research hybrid organizations in Louisville, Milwaukee, and Lexington, Kentucky.
The hope was that a combined organization would eliminate redundancies, reduce costs and pump up the volume of the group's lobbying and business recruitment efforts.
"One Vision. One Team. One Voice," Hadley says. "That was the tagline."
Since then, Hadley believes it's been a smashing success. "The amount of recognition and admiration we got across the state from other communities... was all extremely positive," Hadley says. "What we created at Greater Spokane Inc. was copied by three other [Washington state] communities."
The timing of the merger, however, complicates the before-and-after picture. A year later, the nation plunged into recession. It was a struggle just to keep existing businesses open, much less attract new ones.
The efficiencies of a combined agency, GSI's interim CEO Alisha Benson argues, was precisely what allowed the agency to weather the recession. Benson and Johnson, the board chair, suggest that the dual missions of GSI aren't contradictory. One way to attract new businesses? Improve the business climate for existing businesses.
Shelly O'Quinn, a conservative county commissioner who worked for GSI for five years, makes the same argument.
"The community needs to recognize your economic base is with the businesses you already have," O'Quinn says. She criticizes Stuckart for suggesting he'd "hold the organization hostage by saying you can't advocate for business climate issues if they go against you."
But outgoing City Councilman Mike Allen, another conservative, says he's long supported separating economic development from GSI. "I've been saying for a couple years that I think we lost momentum when the consolidation took place," he says. "I think we need to have a 22nd century perspective for how we want economic development to work."
Tuesday's election put four of the seven council seats in play, including Stuckart's. But the other three councilmembers — Amber Waldref, Candace Mumm and Jon Snyder — echo Allen and Stuckart's desire to re-examine GSI's role.
The dissatisfaction with Spokane's ability to attract new businesses is a common complaint. While GSI proudly points to companies, like Caterpillar, that GSI has helped bring to the area, Greg Bever, former Spokane Journal of Business publisher and former GSI board member, sees numerous jobs that instead went to smaller places like Moses Lake. "We aren't even in the ballgame with most of those communities," Bever says. "We're not competitive."
Bever says GSI's economic development team fights hard with what they have to attract businesses, but they lack the tools and resources to do the job properly. Combining the agencies, he suggests, might have made it easier for economic development goals to get lost.
Bever sees a bigger problem: Most every county in the state has at least one port district, a public agency that can use its own taxing authority to build infrastructure and offer businesses powerful enticements to move to that county. But Spokane doesn't.
"Until we get a tool like the port district, we'll continue to Band-Aid and chicken-wire things together," adds County Commissioner Al French, who suggests that a port district could take over much of GSI's economic development role.
When GSI board chair Johnson and board chair-elect Larry Soehren sent a letter replying to Stuckart, it also mentioned a port district as a possible tool for economic development. Instead of taking a point-by-point approach to countering Stuckart's complaints, the letter reiterated the value of the combined agencies and listed GSI's successes, like attracting legislative funding for the North Spokane Corridor.
"We believe working together on a regional basis for a shared prosperity will help us get farther faster," the letter reads. "All of this is not to say we don't hear your concerns. We do."
Stuckart isn't satisfied. "This does not address these concerns," he says, referring to GSI's reply. "Their own pursuit of a port district proves my point it should be a separate agency."
On Monday, the executive committee of GSI met to further discuss Stuckart's letter. While the committee agreed it would be valuable to continue conversations with Stuckart, GSI's interim CEO Benson says, there wasn't any desire on the committee to pursue the council president's suggested reforms.
"The executive committee is still very committed to the integrated approach of Greater Spokane Inc.," Benson says. ♦[UPDATE: This story has been updated to note it was Washington State University who was asked to save the Jensen-Byrd Building.]