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Friends in High Places 

by William Stimson & r & When you walk through the grand lobby of the Davenport Hotel today, it's hard to imagine that for quite some time the building teetered on the brink of demolition. But that's where we were back in 1986, when the Friends of the Davenport first organized. At that time, Kirtland Cutter's masterpiece needed a few friends, as many people had already given up on saving it. Headlines in the Spokesman-Review read: "Experts See Little Hope of Saving Davenport," "Time Running Out in Quest To Save Davenport Hotel" and "Davenport a Step Closer to Demolition."


The dozen or so people who answered Sheri Barnard's call to form the organization had little idea of what, if anything, it could do about the hotel, but we pledged to do whatever we could.


Because of that pledge, rather off-handedly given, this genteel little circle of do-gooders found itself, seven years later, having to oppose the formidable political and public relations machine of the Washington Water Power Company (now Avista). Or, to state our dilemma more precisely, we didn't have to oppose Washington Water Power. We could have passed the standard concerned-citizen resolution urging all parties to do right by the hotel, and then stood aside while others decided the fate of the hotel. But the Friends didn't stand aside.


The controversy over WWP's oil spill a block from the hotel began in 1993 with Washington Water Power's announcement that its old steam plant had leaked something on the order of 50,000 gallons of viscous oil into the ground. Where the oil had settled was not entirely clear. But the utility was certain it was no danger to anyone or their property values. Other property owners, including the new owners of the Davenport Hotel, Sun International, weren't so sure.


In August 1995, Friends Chair Ellen Robey called me and said the argument seemed to have reached some sort of crisis. The chairman of Sun International, Wai-Choi Ng, was in high dudgeon about something. Could I go over to the hotel and find out what?


Wai-Choi, always charming but apt to be volatile when properly perturbed, was pacing in circles when I arrived at his small office in the mostly dark hotel. He said he'd had it with trying to work with Washington Water Power. He claimed WWP was refusing to do more tests only because it was afraid it would find more oil. If it were allowed to walk away from the responsibility, the subterranean oil would become the liability of any property owners in the area. Wai-Choi said this would certainly deter potential investors. If WWP's attitude toward the spill did not change, he said, Sun International would board the hotel up again and let someone else deal with it.


That was the last thing the Friends wanted to see. One service the Friends of the Davenport had inadvertently performed was to act as witnesses to the Ngs' treatment of the hotel. What we knew, and what few others in the city knew, since the hotel was closed, was that the Ngs were probably the most conscientious stewards of the hotel since Louis Davenport himself. They had been diligent in protecting and restoring the hotel as they searched for buyers. Jeffrey Ng, Wai-Choi's younger brother, devoted a decade of his life holding it together. We didn't want them to leave because the hotel would almost certainly return to "Time Running Out" status.


What lender would fund a renovation of a building located above an oil spill? And who would buy such a building in the first place?





Spill? What Spill? & r & It was clear to me that the Friends of the Davenport were destined to get more involved in the oil argument, so my wife and I went to the Washington State Department of Ecology offices at Monroe and Wellesley to research the spill. It didn't take us long to learn that WWP was not exactly the hapless victim of circumstances it claimed to be.


The company knew it had leaked oil out of its steam plant in 1982. It reported a spill of 15,000 gallons, which underestimated the matter by about 100,000 gallons. Neither WWP nor the state made that information public at that time. Consequently, the Ngs bought the hotel in 1990 unaware of this liability.


By at least 1991, WWP knew it had spilled much more oil than it had originally reported. It was reluctant to admit this fact even to the Department of Ecology. In a confidential report dated Sept. 12, 1991, a consultant assured WWP: "Washington Water Power was not named as tank owner during the discussion and Ecology respected my desire that the tank owner remain anonymous." Nevertheless, the consultant added, "with a little focused detective work," Ecology could probably figure out where the oil spill was. That's when WWP announced the larger spill.


This background shaded my view of the controversy from that time forward. It was clear WWP had been treating the spill, not as an environmental matter, but strictly as a political and public relations problem.


That fall, I represented the Friends at meetings of various groups of property owners on what to do about the spill. At most of these, the topic was "How can we get Washington Water Power to cooperate?"


I had a hard time understanding this. Why make a request to WWP? It had spilled the oil, and it should clean it up.


Gradually I learned that the controversy was caused, not by a dispute about who was responsible, but due to the fact that Washington Water Power was too powerful to be ordered around. Hence the endless strategizing.


The Ngs, on the other hand, were outsiders. This was a serious liability in Spokane, and Washington Water Power made the most of it, always suggesting there was some nefarious plot behind the demand that WWP clean up its oil. A WWP public relations man told the Spokesman-Review: "We're not sure what the agenda is, quite frankly."





Good Advice & r & When I found myself in yet one more meeting about to draw up another petition to WWP, I announced unilaterally that the Friends of the Davenport thought it was time to be more direct. I thought it would be possible to present a solid front of responsible citizens who would tell WWP to clean up the oil. If they wanted to disagree, they could petition us. I should have taken it as a clue that no one at the meeting volunteered to join this effort.


My idea immediately fizzled. I called dozens of people and got mostly well wishes and warnings, but no volunteers. City government, for one, was all but inert on the issue.


There were some outspoken critics of the oil spill. One of them was the Spokesman-Review's business writer, the late Frank Bartel. He had focused on the oil spill in what would turn out to be his last journalistic campaign. In one column, Bartel wrote, "WWP has continued to minimize the size and importance of the spill. The utility has stalled. It has sloughed off responsibility. It has attacked the credibility of others."


I had known Bartel for 25 years, since I was a young reporter and he was a mentor in the Spokane Chronicle newsroom. Few people knew more about Spokane's arcane business politics than Bartel, who had covered them for three decades. I called him and asked him for some advice.


We met at a coffee shop across from the entrance to the Davenport. Bartel's opinion was that the Friends were not going to get anyplace as long as WWP could pretend it was in an argument with out-of-towners with suspicious motives. If, however, WWP found itself in an argument with bone fide Spokane opinion-makers, it might change its tune.


"I'll tell you what you do, Bill. You set up a card table on that corner right over there" -- Bartel pointed through the coffee shop window to the sidewalk at the northeast corner of the hotel -- "and sit Dorothy Powers down at it with a sun bonnet and a petition and let her start taking signatures."


Board member Dorothy Powers, of course, is one of the grande dames of Spokane. Everybody knows of her, and she knows practically everybody. She had been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer on the Spokesman-Review for half a century and was a local historian as well. Bartel's point was that when WWP found itself in a public argument with such people, it would become more flexible.


I thought this sounded about right. But what would the board think? Most of them were on the board precisely because of their social standing in Spokane. Many were working professionals, and I assumed they were no less susceptible to worries about perturbing Washington Water Power than the others I had talked to. Dorothy Powers in particular, I knew, was loathe to trade on her prominence in the community.


When the board next met, I proposed to write a white paper explaining the history of the spill. I said -- this was to give them an out if they didn't like the idea -- I could make it my own document, issued under my own name (which would defeat the purpose, but I didn't say so). To my great relief, there wasn't a moment's hesitation. If such a report was my advice, the board would endorse it and distribute it.


Then I gingerly related Frank Bartel's advice that we could be most effective by drawing attention to who exactly it was calling upon WWP to take action. For this reason, I said, without looking at Dorothy, it might be helpful if anyone wanted to write letters of support.


Dorothy's letter was the first to come through. It was a masterpiece of I-come-to-bury-Caesar-not-praise-him irony; without ever actually criticizing WWP, she placed the burden for preserving "the great events of our lives -- weddings, birthdays, gala charity balls to benefit the city's needy, Christmas tree caroling, graduation parties, teas to honor grandmothers," squarely on the shoulders of WWP.


Others added letters, including Katherine Gellhorn, the ubiquitous social benefactor whose bronze likeness is in the Interplayers lobby, and Nancy Compau, the city's archivist and historian. One letter I especially prized came from board member Norma Stejer's husband, Richard Stejer, one of Spokane's best-known and best-liked business leaders. He started his letter, "As a 91-year-old resident of Spokane and a 40-year investor in WWP, I have been greatly disappointed..." Such names could not escape the notice of executives on Mission Avenue (as evidenced by the fact that a WWP immediately started calling Dorothy and insisting that they needed to go to lunch).


Public Relations War & r & We combined these letters and my explanation of the issue in a pamphlet and sent it to 5,000 people who had attended our annual Christmas at the Davenport functions. Each one of those recipients was self-selected partisans of the Davenport in the fact that they had come out on a cold night and paid $10 for the privilege of seeing the old building.


WWP's response came quickly. The company faxed a letter to hundreds of businesses and offices all over the city declaring: "An escalating public relations campaign has been launched against Washington Water Power....William Stimson, a Board member of the Friends of the Davenport, has taken a lead role in this public relations effort...." Recipients of the fax were encouraged to call WWP immediately if they were "exposed to any information which causes you concern."


I must admit I was taken aback; I was discovering why wiser people than I hesitated to get in a public relations battle with Washington Water Power. It had endless resources for such a battle. The utility had started publishing full-page ads at a cost of thousands of dollars in the Spokesman-Review, which said virtually nothing about the oil issue but insisted WWP was "Doing the Right Thing."


More worrisome than the ads was a face-to-face campaign I only got hints of. My colleague, Steve Blewett, for example, who used to work at WWP, ran into couple of WWP friends and kiddingly mentioned to them he was thinking of helping me on the oil spill issue. An hour later, two WWP officials were in Blewett's office briefing him on the folly of getting involved on the issue.


Richard Ripley of the Journal of Business wrote that "a source close to WWP" had informed him the efforts of the Friends of the Davenport were being orchestrated by a "a high-powered PR firm out of Seattle." The irony was that I was up late that night, alone in my home, typing out a denial of a rumor of high-powered PR help -- a rumor that had been spread by Spokane's highest-powered PR firm.


In May 1996, WWP held its annual stockholders meeting. In the public comment section, Norma Stejer stood up in the WWP meeting and said she thought the stockholders ought to discuss the matter of the oil spill. WWP President Paul Redmond quickly thanked her but said, unfortunately, this wasn't a good time. Norma stood her ground and delivered a lecture on civic responsibility. It became the talk of the meeting.


Meanwhile, petitions attached to our pamphlet started flowing in. They also spawned letters to the Spokesman-Review and The Inlander. We heard through the grapevine that the newsletter had become a conversation starter for dinners and parties.


All along, we had regularly requested a meeting with WWP hierarchy to describe our concerns directly. We got official notice that such a meeting was impossible because of our support for the Ngs.





At Last, Salvation & r & Suddenly, everything began to change. We got a message that a representative of the company would like to attend our next meeting. The WWP vice president who appeared asked us to fill him in on our complaints. We did so, meticulously. Finally he made a little gesture, turning up the palms of his hands, and said, "Well, then, what can we do?" Ellen Robey responded what we had always asked: Sit down with the owners of the Davenport Hotel and reach an agreement that protects the hotel.


From that moment forward, there was never another problem over the oil spill. To its credit, Water Power admitted its mistake and became as professional and efficient in supporting the Davenport as it had been in opposing us. A few weeks later, Paul Redmond and Wai-Choi Ng were shaking hands in the lobby of the Davenport over a deal they had struck. More years would pass, but that moment made it possible for Walt Worthy to purchase and renovate the Davenport -- perhaps the single most important project in Spokane since Expo '74.


When we formed the Friends 19 years ago, no one had any idea of exactly what we might be able to do. Our fondest hope was that some outside (and maybe not too cautious) buyer would swoop in and spend $50 million restoring it, and we could retire.


It turned out to be more difficult than that. But in retrospect, I think it was healthy that a group of through-and-through Spokanites had to fight to save something they loved. They won, but so did Washington Water Power, along with everyone else in Spokane.





William Stimson is the author of Spokane: A View of the Falls. He's still a Friend of the Davenport.
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