by William Stimson
Right up until the end, I thought it was a ruse. I thought the Public Facilities District was pretending to be interested in the so-called East Site to make the owner of the South Site nervous, as a used-car shopper might leave the convertible and pay attention to an ugly duck to lower the expectations of the salesman. I never thought they would buy the ugly duck.
Why would you build a convention center meant specifically to bring shoppers and hotel guests downtown and then locate them as far away as you can get?
At the west edge of the Central Business District, we have the following assets desperate for attention: the Fox Theater, the Met, the Davenport, the Hotel Lusso, River Park Square and all sorts of stores and restaurants besides. The Public Facilities District has made these as inconvenient as possible to the conventioneers of the future.
Virtually the whole of the downtown business community asked for the South Site. This included, prominently, Davenport developer Walt Worthy and Carnegie Square and Steam Plant developer Ron Wells, two people who helped make Spokane worth holding a convention in.
It seemed to me the Public Facilities District Board was rather cavalier in the way it dealt with those who actually have money on the table. In one meeting, PFD chairman Bill Williams told Walt Worthy, "It won't fit on the south side! IT WILL NOT FIT!" Some people would hesitate to instruct Walt Worthy on construction.
Nor did the PFD give the impression of being interested in other people's opinions. It held many public hearings, but only on matters it deigned to let the public in on. Whenever it didn't want the public to know, it carefully engineered meetings so that there would be no quorum of the five PFD board members. This way the board could keep the public out without violating state Open Meeting laws. There are exemptions written into the state Open Meetings Law to cover legitimate needs of secrecy. If their topic was one of those, PFD board members could have declared so and closed the doors with my blessing. Their manipulation of quorums, however, can be interpreted as nothing but an attempt to keep the rest of us out.
Even below the level of strategy sessions, the PFD preferred closed meetings. Shaun Cross, successor to Bill Williams as PFD chairman but no longer on the board, explained to the Spokesman-Review that advisory committees to the PFD legally could be closed to the public, since their decisions would ultimately have to be approved in open session by the full PFD.
This is an interesting theory and completely at odds with the spirit of the Open Meetings law of Washington state. That law requires that "deliberations be conducted openly" because the citizens of Washington state "do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know." (RCW42.30.010)
Aside from being the law, openness can have advantages. For example, the PFD came up with a plan to give Azteca Restaurant -- whose land is needed in order to build on the East Site - a new $2 million restaurant and 30 years of free rent on a portion of the South Site. At the time this idea was first floated eight months ago, Kevin Twohig, executive director of the PFD, told the Spokesman-Review that the idea was too new to "discuss in the press." Discussing it in the press, of course, is synonymous with letting the public in on it.
Six months later, when the PFD tried to advance the Azteca plan as a done deal, the business community, city officials and many in the public rebelled -- it was the wrong architecture on the wrong corner at the wrong price. The PFD had to withdraw a decision that had been months in the works and begin all over again.
It leads one to wonder: Are other decisions that were not ready to "discuss in the press" buried in the fine print of the new convention center? We will find out the hard way.
And yet there is the distinct possibility the Public Facilities District Board is right about the East Site. The future convention center will occupy an indisputably gorgeous location looking out on the river. The walk from the site along the tree-lined riverbank to the downtown hub is, though a little long, also beautiful.
The preceding rather harsh interpretation of the Public Facilities District's conduct may reflect nothing more than the fact that this writer's opinion did not prevail.
But that in itself should be something for the PFD Board to ponder. A reward of procedure and inclusiveness is that when the decision is made, those who lose are merely disappointed, not angry. The way the PFD went about its business made a lot of people angry.
William Stimson is a journalism professor at Eastern Washington University.
Publication date: 06/17/04