On Sunday we celebrate 40 years since Expo '74's grand opening. But it all really started 50 years ago, in 1964, when an up-and-coming California urban planner by the name of King Cole moved to Spokane.
Alarms about the future of the Lilac City had been sounding: In 1958, Sears left downtown; in 1961 the Ebasco Report advised the city that it needed a big shot of urban renewal, pronto, before it was too late; voters said no thanks.
That's where Cole came in, with Spokane at a dead end, desperation starting to set in.
I visited Cole one afternoon in 1999, just before the 25th anniversary of Expo. "The reason for the World's Fair was not to have a party, not to become important, not to create a park," he told me that sunny April day. "It was to save the downtown."
And that's exactly what they did.
People say there are no silver bullet solutions, that the world just doesn't work that way, but Expo '74 was an improbable, audacious moon shot — and the single most transformative event in our history. "I lost track at about 15 miracles," Cole recalled that day, "and I don't mean coincidence or serendipity. I mean real, it-can't-be-done and — bang! — it got done."
Cole and his team made their own luck, but he also had an ace in the hole — a secret ingredient that tied everything together. The Ebasco Report reminded locals of their forgotten Spokane River. So when Cole got to town, he was smart enough to stake out that piece of common ground and build a vision around it. After 10 years of scratching and clawing, they had reclaimed the Spokane Falls, surrounded them with a World's Fair and wrapped it all up in a story of environmental redemption that inspires us to this day.
I won't forget the last thing Cole told me: "You can't do something that big," he said of the improvements around the Spokane River, "and expect it to last longer than 25 or 30 years."
That was 25 years after Expo; here we are, 40 years out, still talking about updating those old fairgrounds. Time is running out.
Not only did Cole and so many others leave us an amazing public space, but if you look carefully, you'll see they left behind the instructions, too — a how-to guide for again making Spokane a can-do kind of place. ♦
All month, I'll be devoting my column to ideas about how we can build on the work King Cole and Spokane's leaders started a half-century ago. Next week: Building a Better Park.