& & By William Stimson & & & &
In contrarian Spokane, here is the ultimate contrary position: Spokane is in good shape. Despite appearances of disarray, Spokane has not been in such a favorable position to do something about the nagging problems of inadequate job opportunities, downtown deterioration and a stubborn "naysayer" citizenry for at least a quarter of a century.
We are squabbling over a renewed Main Street. Ten years ago, this "problem" was an impossible dream. As River Park Square has filled out and become more interesting, the indignation of its most adamant opponents is beginning to soften. At one of his campaign stops, Mayor John Talbott named "vibrant retail" resulting from River Park Square as one of Spokane's strengths. "I don't like the way the finances were done, but we've got brick and mortar now, and it's going to succeed."
Admit it: Betsy Cowles put downtown Spokane back on its feet. That is a huge accomplishment and one worthy of a family that has contributed so much to Spokane. But let us admit this, too: The way it was done is a good example of how to destroy trust between government and citizens. The City Council of 1997 hoped the deal would slip by the citizens without much attention to the details. But citizens, like Talbott, did notice.
Meanwhile, largely due to the effort of Talbott and the rebellion he led, poverty in Spokane is, for the first time, a serious issue in a local election. At that same debate in which Talbott conceded River Park Square was important, his opponent, John Powers, said: "We cannot achieve our potential as a community if we bring in 50,000 high-paying jobs, and the rest of our community remains mired in poverty."
This reflects a change in the discussion of what constitutes a strong community. As recently as two years ago, a City Council member, asked why wages in Spokane were so low, thought it sufficient to answer with a shrug, saying, "It's a poor community."
Behind the seemingly pointless arguments and wrangling, there have been many promising changes to Spokane's fundamental ways of doing things. Who becomes mayor Tuesday night is less important than the fact that he will take over an experimental government apparatus -- the contribution of that quarrelsome genius, Steve Eugster.
The Chamber of Commerce has also reevaluated its role in local affairs. The new president of the Chamber, Whitworth College President Bill Robinson, said the Chamber had undergone a self-examination after the Symposium Series, sponsored by one of the insurgents, John Stone. "Historically chambers have done a better job of representing business interests of big business in the area. We want to represent all the people in this region," Robinson told The Spokesman-Review, "including those who are struggling at the bottom of the economy."
This is a long way from the Chamber's position three years ago, when it appeared to believe it was not poverty, but certain political candidates who were the root of Spokane's problems.
After the 1999 election, in which voters ignored most of The Spokesman-Review's counseling, that paper's editorial page made a generous concession: "The Spokesman-Review congratulates those who won Tuesday's election [and] wishes them success in their efforts to build a consensus and solve problems. And thanks for reminding everyone that newspapers do not run the government, and certainly do not control the outcome of elections."
The Review's demeanor in the present election has been very different than in 1997 and '99. It has decided to give up the role of combatant and limit itself to the more traditional journalistic role of an observer.
A year ago, writing in The Inlander, I pummeled The Spokesman-Review Editor Chris Peck for blaming all of Spokane's problems on Steve Eugster, when in fact, I maintained, Spokane's problems went much deeper. Peck wrote me a very temperate letter, in contrast to my intemperate article, suggesting I had oversimplified his position. This appears to be true. In the letter, Peck summarized the points he was trying to make: "1) Calls for change are much easier than change itself. 2) Real change doesn't begin with television ads saying change is necessary, but from seeds planted long ago by sound public policy and allowed to mature over time. 3) Many of the problems Spokane faces are deeply embedded in our culture of poverty, our geographic isolation, our climate and our propensity to endorse flakes, white separatists and cranky people with a lot of money."
I cannot disagree with the first point. I went into journalism partly because I discovered it is easier to call for change than to make it. I also agree with point two, except that if the seeds haven't been planted "long ago," it should be done now.
The third point is where we part company. I don't think that Spokane's problems are caused by the weather or "propensities." I believe people are about the same everywhere, and if they aren't getting along, it means their institutions are not suitable to the task. As Peck himself has observed, Spokane citizens and their leaders have been at odds for decades. This would seem like a good time to reshuffle the situation, and Spokane has done so.
No matter who wins Tuesday, Spokane is finally in a position to take on its problems because so many of its institutions have responded sensibly to the crisis.
& & & lt;i & William Stimson is the author of Insiders and Naysayers: A Brief History of Spokane Politics, published by Camas Magazine (www.camasmagazine.com), an online publication. It will be published in book form next month. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &