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Too Nice a Town? 

by Robert Herold


In case you haven't heard, there's a report out that's creating a discussion about economic development in Spokane. EWU Professor Shane Mahoney's study, "Culture and Economic Development in the Spokane Region," builds from the assumption implied in the title of his work: Economic development will always emerge as a function of culture. Informed by some 30 interviews with anonymous "industrial leaders" in Spokane and Boise, and written with reference to a well-established and growing body of social theory regarding the importance of culture, he reaches a number of "preliminary" conclusions:


* Spokane culture is distrustful, thus making cooperation difficult;


* Spokane culture is "taciturn," characterized by deference;


* Spokane culture is distrustful of local and state government, marginalizing both, especially as regards economic development;


* Spokane culture does not "fully understand and appreciate the role of a research university";


* and Spokane culture "has a very weak sense of regional symbiosis" (by comparison, Mahoney draws attention to the very intense regional symbiosis found in the Silicon Valley).


One could raise questions regarding his methodology. Might he be skating over the proverbial very wide pond? That's a fair question to ask. While the right 30 people could no doubt shed great insight, how does he know that he got the right 30 people? He offers only vague criteria: "Industry leaders" does seem a tad broad. And while his access depended on a grant of anonymity, some categorization would have been helpful (how many from each of his three technology sectors?). Still, his aggregate economic data is both pertinent and revealing, and it rests with his critics to show differently.


Others dismiss his work as impressionistic. Yes, he does build to his conclusions through impressions and anecdotes derived from observations. Here it should be pointed out that some of the very best social thought has relied on impressions. Alexis de Tocqueville based Democracy in America on observations he recorded while traveling through America in a buggy! Name even one "hard data" study that has held up as well.





Speaking of anecdotal evidence, Mahoney attributes much of Spokane's cultural foundation to what is termed "Spokane-nice" -- in his words, "a deferential tendency that requires those with good manners to avoid certain topics in public." I believe that I can take credit (or blame) for this term; I first used it in a radio commentary I delivered over KPBX Public Radio a decade ago. I had "the impression" that if you were to stop any 50 people on the street and ask them to characterize Spokane, most would say, "Spokane's a nice place to raise a family." Not an exciting place. Not a challenging place. Not a rigorous place. Rather, a "nice" place. Unfortunately, "nice" and "change" don't mix all that well, for to change one risks being viewed as something other than "nice." And around here, well, that's just not nice.


In times past, the civic credo in cities run by political machines was "get along by going along." That's another way of being "nice." The results are the same: stagnation. Think of it as "whistling through the graveyard." A Portland singer/songwriter named McKinley, in her song "Crowbar," nicely sums up our problem:


And I'm whistling through the graveyard


and you're humming along with me


and we're wondering how hungry the ghosts there might be


Stop whistling, and we risk running into all those ghosts, who aren't nice at all.


Mahoney sees the addition of a real research university as Spokane's very own ghostbuster. he also acknowledges that even the respondents who viewed research to be important to economic development "did not perceive such research to be something that results from establishment of a research university." Mahoney's assessment of misunderstanding regarding the nature of a research university is without any doubt correct. In 1998, many of the region's technology leaders testified before the Higher Education Board to the importance of a research university. I was in attendance, and as I sat there and listened it became clear to me that these folks really wanted publicly funded technology job training -- a demand that had not one thing to do with a research university. I've said this before: The quality of a research university and the responsiveness of that university to local workforce training needs varies inversely. Research universities benefit the community largely by bringing the larger world into the community through research. Job training is important, but funded research is crucial to a community's intellectual and economic vitality.





If Mahoney's theory about Spokane is accurate, we may prefer to continue whistling through that graveyard rather than learning the difference between real economic development and mere window dressing.


Notably, we do not find any mention of SIRTI in Mahoney's study. This comes as a surprise, given that he seeks to explore economic development. I've learned that in earlier drafts he cited SIRTI as an example of as an example of a problematic approach to economic development, but his criticism didn't make it into print. But isn't SIRTI's mission fair game for reexamination? Well, apparently not if there's any chance that by doing so we risk being not so nice.


This report is being criticized, naturally, by those it indicts. Which brings me to the irony of it all: Leaving methodology aside, it's only if Mahoney is right that we would expect to see such a reaction.





You can request a copy of the report from the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis at 624-1393 or [email protected]





Publication date: 10/14/04
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