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Monday, July 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Kate Riley / Times staff columnist
By Kate Riley
Spokane sits about 280 miles east of Seattle, a straight shot along the Interstate 90 ribbon that traverses the Cascade Mountains, the mighty Columbia and some of the most productive farmland in the nation. While Big Sister Seattle rode the 1990s technology boom, Spokane retained the largely natural-resources-based economy it has had since the area was settled around 1810.
Adding insult to injury, the U.S. Census reported last year Spokane slipped from second-largest city to third after Tacoma, a status the agency says continued this year. But recent state figures put Spokane's population of 197,400 in second by 600 souls, prompting this Tacoma headline last week: "Is Tacoma still No. 2, or have we sunk to Spokane's level?"
Ouch! Rough talk. But the capital of the Inland Empire seems intent on changing attitudes.
Last month, a city and private partnership flipped a switch on what city officials say is the largest public WiFi zone in the country about 100 square blocks in downtown. Aimed at attracting more high-technology companies, the system permits any user to access the Internet two hours a day free of charge, police to check license plates with their handheld devices and new Mayor Jim West to tote his laptop across the street for lunch at O'Doherty's.
West, who left the Legislature after 17 years to run his hometown, acknowledges Spokane has had a bit of an underdog complex.
"We've been living in the shadow of Seattle all these years," said West, who led the Senate Republican caucus for four years. "But we're working diligently to get on our feet and compare ourselves to ourselves."
Civic boosters do cite outside validation: In June, the National Civic League named it an All-American City for civic excellence, and recently, the New York-based Intelligent Community Forum cited Spokane as the only U.S. city among its seven top intelligent communities of 2003-04, for using technology as an economic development tool.
West is as focused as anyone on changing his hometown's fortunes, even with the distraction of battling cancer. West says he's cancer-free after surgeries and chemotherapy.
He decided not to join the U.S. Conference of Mayors at least for this year, saying, "I've got too much on my plate right here."
The main course is resolving the city's costly involvement in the city's River Park Square parking garage imbroglio. In 1997, the City Council approved a public/private partnership to rebuild the downtown mall and buy and renovate a parking garage. The complex deal was based on bad numbers, and the city and the private developers, who also own the Spokane newspaper, are defendants in a federal fraud lawsuit.
Soon after taking office, West won six of seven council votes for a strategy to settle the case, a shift from a historically more divided council. West remains hopeful a settlement will minimize the cost to Spokane's citizens before the case goes to trial in August.
Despite the problems, the development clearly has changed the nature of the downtown. After 20 years of regular trips to visit Spokane family, I can attest the downtown sure is a more fun place to hang out. A breathtaking restoration of the historic 1914 Davenport Hotel, which had been a downtown black hole for 15 years, and other investment followed.
Add in development plans for a University District that would integrate the city's health-care industry about 20 percent of Spokane's economy with programs offered through Washington State University, Eastern Washington University, Spokane's community colleges and the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute. West helped to usher through the Legislature to the governor's signature $31.8 million for a WSU academic building at the site.
"We're open for business," West says. "We don't want the growth problems Seattle has, the congestion or the traffic. But we want more jobs with better pay."
West's metamorphosis from a fiercely partisan, sharp-tongued policymaker to a brass-tacks executive, who is requiring the city's 2,100 employees to go through customer-service training, has impressed prominent constituents of both parties.
"He's very much a problem-solver and a partner with us," said Scott Morris, chairman of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce and senior vice president of Avista Corp.
In the Legislature, West was a champion of making the state more business-friendly and competitive. As mayor, he wants to make sure the city is a catalyst for, not a drag on, development.
For now, West seems to be hitting his leadership stride just as his hometown seems on the upswing. West's test will be helping the city move beyond the lawsuit and keeping the momentum going.
Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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