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Bright Idea? 

For the last several years, Mark Mays and John Bury have been getting together once a month to eat lunch and talk big. The two attorneys talk about something different each time. This month, it could be quantum mechanics. Next month, it could be nonfiction literature or socioeconomics.

It was during one of these discussions, about a year ago, that they began talking about higher education, specifically, about the need for a more educated workforce in Spokane -- especially, they reasoned, since companies are increasingly looking to locate where educated young people are. And especially at a time when many of Spokane's other economic pillars (wheat, timber, silver) have long since failed to support it.

The pair came up with an idea and formed a nonprofit organization -- Bring Regional Improvement and Growth through Higher Education and Training (BRIGHT) -- to help turn their possibility into a reality.

Their idea is simple: They want Spokane to help pay students' tuition at local colleges and universities. In exchange, the students would agree to stay in the city for three years after college. No service required, no strings. If they decide to leave, they simply pay the grant back like a student loan.

Mays and Bury believe that if 1,000 Spokane high school students took them up on the offer each year -- earning an associate's or bachelor's degree and then sticking around -- Spokane would become a more vibrant city, the pool of educated young people would swell, businesses would come calling and the economy would boom.

"It's building infrastructure," Bury says. "Just like you build a bridge -- these people are infrastructure."

Mays adds that urban planners will tell you that when you build light rail, you send it to where you want people to be, not where they are. "You build infrastructure where you want your future to be."

For its part, BRIGHT's future is still in its infancy, with scores of questions still unresolved. The biggest of these? Who's going to pay for it? Mays and Bury peg the yearly cost of funding 1,000 students at around $12 million -- a figure they think is doable, judging by a recent Gonzaga University fundraiser that netted the school around $130 million -- but they don't know from where the money would come. A combination of public and private sources, they say.

They're looking to the community to help them answer their other questions. Mays says he's in talks with Eastern Washington University to do a feasibility study in the near future. In March, the organization sent letters to a few hundred of its closest friends -- in education, politics, economic development, the public and private sectors -- soliciting input on their idea.

Recently, we put together a panel of three people for whom the idea should matter most -- a high school senior, a recent college graduate and a 20-something professional -- to ask if BRIGHT is as brilliant as Mays and Bury believe and find out what it takes to keep smart young people here. The following is the transcript of that discussion.

Kate Clark, you're a senior at University High School. You've been involved with every possible school activity from sports and clubs to the Genocide Project and lobbying in Washington, D.C. Now you're headed to the University of Oregon. Talk a little about growing up in the Valley.

CLARK: As a younger kid it's great growing up in the Valley, because it's really safe and there's lots of nice parks and good schools and things like that. And then you still have the amenities of downtown available to you through your parents. But once you got into high school, it seems, then that's when kids get really, really bored and that's when they turn to doing alternative activities and things like that. And it's difficult to keep kids engaged just because if you don't have a car and you don't know the bus system, it's kind of difficult to get downtown, and then most kids don't want to make that effort to figure out what's down there.

How many of your peers are sticking around?

CLARK: Basically the only reason they're staying here is because cost of living will be down in college. They'll go to the Falls or SCC and stay with their parents. Or even some are going to Eastern. But I don't know anybody that plans to actually stay in Spokane in my circle of friends.

Let's pretend that BRIGHT becomes a reality and that kids around Spokane are offered money for college in exchange for sticking around for three years. Do you think they'd take it?

CLARK: Definitely. There's actually still a big population of Valley kids who are going to stay home because of that economic factor, because it's cheaper to go to school at Eastern or in-state than it is out-of-state. We have a large proportion of middle class citizens. And I know the parents would definitely push kids to go that route.

Mariah McKay, you just graduated from Reed College (in Portland) and now you're back at home in Spokane. What are you doing now, and are you sticking around?

MCKAY: I got out of Spokane as a senior, hating Spokane and didn't look back until the last semester of my senior year, in which I started to get really homesick. I missed my big [extended family]. And I thought Spokane would be an affordable place to conduct my nationwide job search for post-graduation entry-level positions to pay down my loans before going off to graduate school.

I've been [in transition] for about two and a half months now, and I've loved every day of it. I was pleasantly surprised moving downtown to Peaceful Valley. Coming from the north side, I wasn't as close to the amenities and wasn't really plugged in to what the city had to offer. So, depending on the tenacity with which I pursue job searching, I could still remain here for anywhere between another month or two through the end of the summer. But if I find a job in the area that is suitable to my standards, what I'm looking for, what kind of post-graduation experience, then I'd be glad to stay here.

Are jobs enough to keep and attract young people here?

MCKAY: I think it's more about the quality of experiences that young people share here while in town. I've had friends who have blown through Portland and have decided they're moving there after spending three days in the city. Period. I'm uprooting everything. I'm quitting my job in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I'm getting my buns to Portland, because that's the hip, exciting place to be. They'll rearrange their entire lives based on the cultural and social assets.

Kurt Sigler, you grew up in Coeur d'Alene and then played football in Buffalo, Winnipeg and then with the Shock last year. Now you're a recruiter with Maxim Healthcare in Spokane. What are your plans for the future?

SIGLER: It's kind of interesting because basically if you take a job here in [our] Spokane staffing office, it's gonna force you to relocate. There's over 400 offices nationwide, and there's not going to be another accounts manager position here in Spokane. So that poses a problem for me, because I would like to stay in the area for a number of different reasons but probably am not going to have an opportunity to. Probably the closest is going to be the Tri-Cities. I guess my motivation to stay in the area is a little skewed because my family's in Coeur d'Alene. But I guess my reasons for wanting to stay is I like the outdoors. I like huntin', I like fishin', I like campin'. I like that I can have the downtown atmosphere and go and do the movies and all sorts of stuff. I think I would love a small-town atmosphere, but I don't think I can handle not having a movie theater, or having at least some sort of selection of reasonable restaurants to go to.

Spokane has a big healthcare presence -- a good source of jobs and salaries for young people. Is it thriving?

SIGLER: We do supplemental staffing for long-term care facilities, hospitals and a number of other facilities. There's a nursing shortage. [But] as far as the health care field in Spokane, it's really interesting because when my accounts manager wanted to split -- it was basically a hybrid office meaning they did home care and staffing -- and they split it to do homecare and just staffing, he was told that you guys will never do $50,000 in revenue in a single week. And that Spokane is no market to have an office. We've been able to completely change everybody's mind. With this area, there's so much more business than anybody ever thought. Our office - it started in 2006. By the beginning of 2007, within one calendar year, it had grown about 37 percent, which is a pretty astonishing amount.

Assuming people take BRIGHT up on the offer, do you think it would make a difference?

MCKAY: I think the more interesting question is -- and it's a pragmatic question --- in sheer terms of volume, how many students are they going to be able to offer this opportunity to? Twenty students per year? Thirty students per year? Three hundred students per year? What critical mass is necessary to get this area tipping in a way that creates enough buzz that there's not just an extra secretary or educated paralegal? It's now you have hundreds and hundreds -- enough to attract a major corporate entity into the area.

SIGLER: I think the level to which they could get this to work would be a big factor in if the cost is going to justify the gains. Ultimately, they're assuming they're going to have this Utopia. But there [are] a lot of assumptions that having these educated people -- one, they're going to stay; two, all these other things are going to happen. They alluded to real estate prices going up...

What do you think about their assumptions?

SIGLER: I think they're very vague at this point, and they're very [dependent] on the level at which it could be accomplished. Crime rates lowering, real estate prices going up. You could tie that in with having higher-educated people but it's not necessarily a direct correlation. It's possible that you could put all this money in and have no positive outcome. That's a possibility.

And selling that to taxpayers could be a task.

MCKAY: [Taxpayers] who empirically, in this region, tend not to fund education initiatives.

CLARK: That, and it's such a long-term goal. You have first your two to four years in school, and then the three years after. It's difficult to get a taxpayer focused on something that's so long-term, where you don't see the immediate benefits for possibly eight years.

Is there a chicken and egg problem here?

SIGLER: I went through the MBA program at Eastern and one of the things that they're starting to get into is entrepreneurship and incubators for small businesses and you could almost look at it from the other end -- if you put the businesses there, then the students coming out of high school or coming out of college would have a reason to stay. So it kinda [works both ways]. Maybe you have to attack the problem from both angles. Because a lot of people, I think, feel they need to leave Spokane because there aren't very many opportunities.

CLARK: Well, something [BRIGHT] put in there that I kind of agreed with was that during those three years and throughout college, these kids will form those relationships and get in family and other relationships, even economic, that would attract them to stay further. That's how they decided on three years. I don't think the majority of students would spend four years in college and then three years in the city and not put some roots down to where you wouldn't want to move somewhere else right away.

Is a time limit necessary?

SIGLER: I think there's gotta be a time limit. I understand their reasoning in having people [around long] enough to develop the ties in the area in hopes of keeping them. Obviously, nobody's gonna accept the grant if it's a 15-year-deal. It's gotta be reasonable.

Would that three-year commitment at some point begin to feel like a ball and chain?

MCKAY: Well, if you graduate with a bachelor's degree in history or political science from Gonzaga University and then you work at David's Pizza for three years, maybe you will want to fly the coop after you've done that time. But if you have a job that is challenging in your field that you feel you can build upon, then it's not just... Attachment, I don't think, is a function of time. I think it helps the odds, like you mentioned, but I think it's more about the quality of experiences that young people share here while in town.

CLARK: That's kind of an interesting conundrum. Would they be able to work somewhere other than just David's Pizza? Would they be able to utilize that education that they were given?

SIGLER: I think that goes back to what Mariah was saying about the magnitude -- how many students that this is going to affect. If it affects a broad enough range, our city will have to adapt to it. Because companies aren't just going to sit back and ignore this huge influx of students of a certain age that are looking for certain qualities.

MCKAY: I know Nike chose to relocate to Portland specifically because Portland had a pre-existing high quality of life and the creative class workers of Nike wanted to live in a hip, fun place like Portland. There's lots of arts, [it's very outdoorsy]. So they had the winning combination.

SIGLER: I see it more of an issue from the other end. There's Cabela's, Buck Knives, other big corporations that are coming because the cost of living, the land is cheap, taxes and that sort of thing. And I don't think the amount of educated work force there is a huge factor, I wouldn't guess.

Besides jobs, what else would keep talented young people in Spokane?

CLARK: A broader social idealism across Spokane. I think it has a stereotype of being very conservative, very religious-based. One of the things that attracted me in other places was the difference. And how that got certain people exposed to different things and broadened your mind and that would make me happier.

Comments? Send them [email protected]

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