The new downtown Spokane, where the future's so bright, met the old, worn downtown on the corner of First and Madison Monday afternoon at the Handy Market.
"The Blu Ray guys came in to buy drinks and buy munchies," says Nancy Feinberg, the voluble manager of the tiny corner store that serves the impoverished and troubled tenants who haunt the west First sidewalks as well as the occasional visiting captain of industry.
Equally voluble Blu Ray president Erick Hansen was in Spokane early this week to visit his new digs at the Commercial Building, 1115 W. First, and talk with remaining tenants and Avista workers who are boosting power to the building for the Blu Ray disc-burning factory Hansen plans to install in the basement. Blu Ray manufactures the DVDs that play in high-end machines designed to get the most out of high-definition TVs.
During a series of chance meetings, Hansen says he was lured away from Los Angeles to Spokane as a site for Blu Ray's cutting-edge factory and says he loves the vibe here. He's jazzed about recycling, as he calls it, a ghetto hotel into a mixed-use, high-tech building running on green power (mostly hydro) and attracting creative indie film types to the city.
"We were just at Cannes," he says, launching into the sort of anecdote few Spokane businessmen can match. "We wanted something better, a more intelligent, more driven workforce. I wanted to be in an economy where the delivery guy could afford to buy a home because that's the American dream," Hansen says.
Citing his own early money struggles, Hansen's big on mixed-use and has refreshing anecdotes about being so taken by the tech savvy of a pizza delivery driver that he may offer the guy a job. "I have his number."
The theme came up at the Handy Market, too, Feinberg says.
"The Blu Ray guys came in and said, 'I'm so glad you're here. This block is still supposed to be filled with working people,'" she says. Feinberg says she replied, "I'm so glad to hear you say that ..."
Because she had to tell the Blu Ray group that the new owners of her building, the New Madison Apartments, are saying she needs to be out by July 15 "because they say I don't fit in with their plan" for new high-end condos.
It made for a bit of an awkward moment and serves to highlight the city's current awkward dilemma. The very sort of high-tech, high-end new development Spokane has been aching for finally comes to the seedy, worn-out western end of downtown, but it seems nobody factored the displacement of more than 100 poor people into the redevelopment scheme. The city finds itself in a bit of a crisis, having to find new homes on short notice for people who are hard to place.
Blu Ray still has about two dozen tenants in the Commercial Building who have yet to find new housing; the city has organized a "Landlord-Tenant Housing Fair" at 1011 W. First on Thursday, June 28, at 1 pm to try to find affordable housing for them and 60 New Madison residents.
City staffers, social service agencies and nonprofits are finding that with the dark side of the recent craze to build condos in the $1 million range, nobody's been paying similar attention to low-income housing needs.
"The bottom line for this city is we don't have the inventory," says Steve Cervantes, executive director of Northeast Washington Housing Solutions, one of several agencies and nonprofits scrambling to find homes for the displaced downtown residents.
Officials are bracing for the current eviction tally to double when the Otis Hotel, also recently purchased for a condo makeover, cuts loose more than 100 tenants. Some live in extreme poverty with tiny pensions or social security providing as little as $400 a month, says Allen Schmelzer, a planner with the city's community development department. Others suffer mental health issues or have criminal histories as convicted sex offenders — or all three. Potential landlords aren't exactly beating down the door.
A wide-ranging group of developers, elected officials, police and social service providers — one observer says there were "45 people around the table" at one session — have been meeting to help ease the crisis.
Mayor Dennis Hession has announced the group will be formalized into a task force that, in addition to providing immediate help, will tackle the larger issue of low-income housing in Spokane. The goal is to rewrite policy and ordinances to entice development of affordable housing as well as high-end projects, Schmelzer says.
"The message of this is to make sure, when you are planning and developing, that the city should be prepared for these kinds of things," says Cervantes. "I come from California and the redevelopment laws are very strict that if you tear down one low-income unit, you have to replace it."
State Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-Spokane) adds, "We have to balance the opportunity [for economic growth] against the care and concern for the neediest among us.
"Did people think there would be a pocketful of fairy dust somewhere so they wouldn't have to figure out where these people would go?" he asks.
Blu Ray has helped tenants find new places and has offered to let tenants take furnishings with them, several observers say. And Hansen adds he's hired as temp workers four tenants from the Commercial. RenCorp, which has purchased the New Madison, is helping pay for credit checks for tenants and pushed the eviction date back two weeks to July 15.
"We all have skin in this game, whether we are the city, the county, the state, developers or neighborhoods," Ormsby says. "We might have to have some frank exchanges to encourage cooperation."