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Top Priority 

by Robert Herold


The good news is that for the first time, restoration of the Fox Theater appears in the governor's budget. The bad news is that the amount -- some three-quarters of $1 million -- is not nearly enough. We need to readjust our priorities and leadership in hopes of boosting that figure in the governor's future budgets.


The Fox Theater remains stuck in line behind the University District and perhaps one or two more initiatives. Even if we were to set aside the very compelling case that historical preservation makes for the Fox -- even ignoring the obvious need in Spokane for a large-sized performing hall that isn't as acoustically challenged as the Opera House -- the case for giving the Fox restoration the highest priority can be made on the basis of economic development alone.


The Fox is essential to the completion of the Davenport District. Once completed, this district will become much more attractive to both commercial activity and, even more important, to downtown apartments and condominiums. The statistics are compelling: People who live downtown spend four to five times as much per year downtown as do people who just work downtown. And speaking of living downtown, a completed arts district would effectively compliment the critically important north riverbank development that is just getting underway.





The University District, the major player in the debate over priorities, provides only the promise of a research university someday in the future. Boosters of this idea don't want to accept the tough reality that until the institutional issues surrounding program authorization and budget redistribution, all the bricks and mortar down at Riverpoint will remain just that: bricks and mortar. Does anyone really believe that by relocating existing academic programs (not one of which, incidentally, can be considered a research program) much of anything will happen? To get there from here, so to speak, WSU has to be both authorized and persuaded to move doctoral programs from Pullman. Now if medical science course offerings are permitted to grow, perhaps momentum might build to the point where some of the longstanding strategic hurdles might yield. That day, I would suggest, is a long ways off, if for no other reason than the institutional politics, when played out in Olympia, are simply too complicated and costly.


One alternative (that I have long promoted) would be to start over again with Spokane State University. You would take down the WSU branch campus, along with EWU, bring in a new administrative team (the present team members could, of course, apply), secure an authorization for the granting of a limited number of doctorates and open for business. As attractive as this alternative seems to me, it, too, is a long shot, even if we had a consensus as to its desirability, which we don't.





Lacking all this really difficult work, what we have now and in the near future at Riverpoint adds little to our community's economy and nothing to the health of downtown. Alternatively, if the Fox were to be fully restored, were the arts district to be completed, were we to continue to nibble away at the bricks-and-mortar opportunities and institutional problems, we might, as a community, eventually find success up and down our list of priorities.


But for now we must fix what we have to fix. That message is coming loud and clear from urbanists everywhere. Moreover, we must realize that there are no quick fixes, especially if opportunities to restore existing spaces are wasted.


Across the country, well-intentioned boosters seemingly can't avoid being energized by bad ideas. They're the civic version of the lemming. Consider all the energy and cost that is being poured into the convention center expansion. It's money that could have much more productively gone to restoring the Fox. Convention centers are done, or so says an article published last spring in the City Journal. Author Steven Malanga documents the rise and fall of the convention center. Boston recently completed an $800 million convention center that sits terribly underused. The Democrats came to town for their convention last summer, but they chose to gather at the Fleet Center. Now Boston is considering building a highly subsidized hotel to improve business. Nor has a new, shiny and very expensive convention center done anything for the New York City economy. But their many restored theaters have had a huge impact.


And here in Spokane, we not only have rolled the dice on a large expansion, we sited it in such a way so as to effectively deny visual access to the river to all but the convention goers, who, if the nationwide figures are indicative, will decline as both competition increases and the attractiveness of holding huge conventions away from glitzy places such as Las Vegas declines.


I return to where I began. The case for giving the Fox restoration top priority is clear. Let the message go forth to Olympia.





Publication date: 2/03/05

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