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The Kramer Quotient 

Will economic refugees fleeing expensive, crowded Western cities start looking to Spokane?

I 'll always remember first arriving in Seattle for college all those years ago. My new University of Washington classmates seemed enchanted that I was from a land so far away called "Spokane." They'd look at me like I was a lost tribesman of Indonesia and just repeat it to me, "Really, Spokane. Huh!"

Later, in grad school in Missouri or working in Boston, I finally gave up telling people I was from Spokane because they had no idea what I was talking about. I just started telling people I was from Seattle. "Oh, Seattle! I love Seattle," they'd say, like I passed the cool test.

click to enlarge mcgregor.jpg

That was part of the reason I wanted to call our newspaper "The Pacific Northwest Inlander" to start out. The Pacific Northwest was hot, and I wanted us to bask in the glow of this corner of the continent. I've written many times about the spillover economy we might benefit from here, just inland from all the action — you know, Microsoft and Boeing maybe sending a factory or call center our way.

Here I am at it again, but this time's different, since our big-brother cities are struggling with some profound livability crises. Just take a quick look, and you'll see that the West Coast is suffering under the weight of its own success.

In San Francisco, only 11 percent of citizens can afford to buy a home; a wooden shack recently made headlines for its $350,000 price.

In Portland, housing prices are growing faster than any city in America, leading owners to find more lucrative uses for their property. A group called Portland Tenants United wants to outlaw no-fault evictions and to freeze rental increases.

In Seattle, 60,000 people moving to the Puget Sound each year and massive construction projects in South Lake Union are making their already horrendous traffic even worse.

I've experienced their traffic. Wow. Montlake Boulevard near UW, trying to get to 520. Or trying to cross the Steel Bridge in downtown Portland. Or the eight miles between Santa Monica and LAX. Parking lots, every one of them, making Spokane seem pretty sweet.

With sticker shock starting to define these beloved places, a recent story in the Los Angeles Times had me thinking we're bound to start getting noticed over here. The headline called us "Horn-of-Plenty Spokane." Wait, what? Nobody's ever called us that before. But out-of-towners can be the best judges, and travel writer Ken van Vechten seemed to fall in love with us. The Centennial Trail, the Davenport Tower Hotel, our winery tasting rooms, restaurants like the Wandering Table — from the sounds of it, he's probably checking for-sale listings, too.

It's hard to notice between sips at one of those tasting rooms, but we haven't experienced the economic explosion of an Amazon or a Google; we're still talking about the World's Fair of 1974. But with way less traffic and much more affordable housing on the other side of the ledger, slow-and-steady Spokane may finally be coming into its own. So to my old smug Seattle friends: How do you like me now?

Are we ready to embrace this opportunity? First we must recognize that it's also a challenge. Keep in mind that some of the problems Portland and Seattle are having stem from San Francisco refugees moving there. And you can't fail to notice that some of our growth management decisions are lacking. We vote "no" on modest transit improvements, and we build huge apartment complexes along already overburdened roads like Regal and Indian Trail.

We need to up our game, as the migration has already started. I know professionals who live in Spokane but work out of Seattle; these days, remote workers can live just about anywhere with good Wi-Fi. And consider a couple of bright spots on the local economic landscape: the expansion of medical education and the growth of the aerospace sector. Overcrowding at the UW Med School on Montlake and at Boeing Field south of Seattle have a lot to do with each.

We can see the mistakes being made on the Coast, so our goal has to be preserving affordability and livability here — implementing new rules and growth strategies, all pulled together by leaders who understand this new regional economic dynamic.

Specific issues include transit (you need more than you think), infill (Kendall Yards is a model, but there are lots of ways to do it), the Spokane International Airport (this is our lifeline and must remain first-class) and our cultural life (people may come for the economic benefits, but they'll stay for the arts, the outdoor recreation and the restaurants).

Spokane native and Seattle resident Timothy Egan recently wrote a column entitled, "Dude, Where's My City?"

"Could Kramer still live in my city?" Egan wondered in the New York Times earlier this month. "Yeah, Kramer, the Seinfeld character who never held a real job, but had a fairly cool apartment. His source of income was suspect. ... Every town needs its Kramers.

"Kramer," Egan concludes sadly, "would need a trust fund" to survive in modern Seattle.

Kramer should probably check out Spokane.♦

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