Two weeks ago, the Forbes media company published its annual list of the best places "for business and careers" in the country. Spokane, which long dwelled ignominiously in the basement of said rankings, came in 9th place this year. "Spokane Ranking Jumps on Forbes," exclaimed a mass e-mail sent out almost immediately by Greater Spokane Incorporated (formerly the Chamber of Commerce). Even Governor Christine Gregoire was quick to gush about the honor, in an interview with The Inlander the day after the news broke (Olympia came in 8th in the study and Seattle was 20th, making Washington, she explained, the only state with three in the top 20).
It's the kind of recognition that any city loves to get -- especially one that has had to fight its way up the ladder. Quick on the heels of the Forbes ranking was a similar story by CNNMoney.com, which pegged Spokane as No. 77 among the "100 best places to live and launch."
It's also the kind of recognition many cities actively court. In an interview last month, former Spokane economic adviser Cody George noted that one of his first responsibilities after being promoted to that post was to win free publicity for the city. "We would work with division directors to try to get written up in journals or professional magazines," he said. "Getting the third-party affirmation that what we're trying to do as an organization and a community is good stuff ... so when businesses are looking to move here or grow here, they understand the quality of what's going on."
But while the city may crow over its latest recognition, it's worth noting that Spokane's general awards and honorifics profile is decidedly mixed. For instance, as development blog MetroSpokane pointed out last week, Spokane was ranked 215th in a list of America's best walking cities published by the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) last month. Forbes itself ranked Spokane 21st last year among the 25 most expensive cities for a first date. Portland-based Sperling's BestPlaces.net -- one of the Internet's most rankings-happy institutions -- has placed Spokane at 38th among "Migraine Hot Spots," 12th among the most stressful mid-sized metros, 94th among the least crime-ridden mid-size cities, 6th among the least expensive places for driving, and 5th in terms of security from natural disasters.
With a number for everything, it would seem that rankings like Forbes' might get diluted. But Greater Spokane Incorporated president Rich Hadley doesn't think so. "There is a direct result. We get announced like this, we do get calls from people from around the country. They're at a point where they're looking to make a [move]. You do get those calls. Forbes is a very credible list," he says. "Secondly, there are companies that we have been working with for maybe six months, maybe a year and a half, in Seattle and California and when this comes out, it helps them move up on the list. 'Hey, my interest in Spokane is validated by others.'"
He adds that GSI doesn't "sit by idly" when this kind of news is announced. Rather, they get on the horn to "site locators" -- firms hired to find a new home for a Hewlett Packard office or a division of Google -- to make sure they know the news.
But Hadley adds that a city shouldn't sit idly by when it gets a less-than-glorious ranking, either. "OK, fine," he says when a mediocre review is announced. "But we're making strides to fix it. ... In 1999, we were 168th [in Forbes]. That didn't feel very good. We should celebrate when it feels good, and we should make sure to take care of our deficiencies [when it doesn't]."
Spokane Mayor Mary Verner echoed that sentiment when she heard of the APMA walkability study. "I think it shows that we still have some more work to do in terms of making our city a more walkable city," she says. Still, she notes that good rankings from a credible source like Forbes are invaluable. "This really helps us as a selling point for recruitment and also just for our own self-image. It's probably psychological as much as anything else."
Patrick Jones, the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis at Eastern Washington University, says he doesn't know of any study that's measured the hard, quantitative effects of rankings like these. Jones' baby is the Community Indicators Initiative, a vast database of economic information on the Spokane area, examining everything from its levels of homelessness and housing affordability to its "cultural performance visitation rate."
"We're constantly comparing Spokane to benchmarks. Usually that benchmark is the state of Washington. In many cases, I think we have made improvements. However, there are some areas [where] we haven't made improvements economically, and that's with our wages paid. Wages paid in the state of Washington and in Spokane County ... it's really going the wrong way. Those are important rankings or comparisons as well."
But, Jones adds with a self-deprecating chuckle, "Obviously the Community Indicators [Initiative] is not Forbes."