by Dan Richardson
In the biblical story, it's Goliath, the heathen giant, who hurls challenges until David fells him with righteous anger and a well-placed sling stone. In the local political version, it's David (activist Clark E. Hager, Sr., and his band of merry malcontents) who's calling out Goliath (established political and business interests).
So who's going down? That's up to the rest of us on May 21, when the issue at hand -- the convention center expansion -- goes to a vote.
The vote would enable the county-wide Public Facilities District (PFD) to extend existing hotel and sales taxes and collect a one-time state sales tax rebate. The money would cover a $96 million regional facilities plan, sometimes called CCX for short, that includes a dramatic expansion of the Spokane Convention Center.
Hager's at every meeting of the Public Facilities District -- which would operate the expanded convention center -- asking questions and audiotaping the proceedings. Isn't this plan just a "trust us" from the PFD? He asks. Isn't this simply a downtown redevelopment project?
A Spokane Valley resident, Hager is a businessman, and now full-time political critic, rabble-rouser and general burr-under-the-establishment's saddle. Critics see him as a kooky crackpot, opposed to everything progressive.
"I've gotten a lot of negativity," says Hager. "I'm an honest citizen who's probably attended more meetings on this subject than anyone else. And I think that should be an acclamation, instead of this naysayer crap."
Hager and a handful of several volunteer letter-writers have a small-time opposition campaign. Their endorsements include a couple local Republican clubs and an obscure constitutionalist women's group, Pro America.
CCX supporters, meanwhile, have rallied big dollars and big supporters, from chambers of commerce to Sacred Heart Hospital. In a rare alignment of the stars, both the Spokane County Board of Commissioners and the Spokane City Council -- two bodies that have to agree to CCX property and tax transfers -- unanimously supported the facilities plan in resolutions several months ago.
"That's the first time it's ever happened in my tenure here," says Jack Lynch, Spokane's city administrator.
Supporters have a powerful argument: A larger convention center would draw hundreds of millions of conventioneer dollars, says Shaun Cross, a PFD board member. Says Lynch: "It provides an immediate economic stimulus to the community. It benefits everybody." It doesn't enact any new tax and actually keeps local sales tax here, not Olympia.
Hager sees this unanimity and big-dollar support for CCX as proof the project's an urban redevelopment scheme with a few dollars trickling out to the Valley -- actually, it's $19 million for improvements to the county fairgrounds and Mirabeau Point.
Hager's been attending PFD meetings and asking pointed questions for years. (He says it's not asking questions, but digging up facts.) He and a few other people formed a political action committee in November -- lining up in opposition, apparently, to the concept of an expanded regional convention center, an indication that for all of Hager's questions, he's not really seeking answers so much as trying to sow doubt among area voters.
Documents with the state's Public Disclosure Commission suggest that supporters, with their mantle of semi-officiality, were equally ready to jump on the bandwagon, supporting a convention center, any convention center. A political action committee called Citizens for Exposition and Regional Facilities (CERF) also organized themselves last year. And while the opposition has collected a whopping 800 bucks, CERF's raked in more than $71,000, much of it from banks and downtown businesses, according to Public Disclosure records.
Hager has more questions than answers. Some questions seem to hint darkly -- perhaps because the "controlled media" doesn't pursue Hager's questions with much vigor. "I'm being stiffed by the press," he says.
The CCX vote, he notes, really just expands the authority of the PFD. That's what certain interests have wanted for years, because PFD board members aren't elected, but appointed (by elected officials in the city and county), according to Hager.
Citizens "have no voting control over them... So they have no right to vote," says Hager.
Others questions are less conspiratorial. In accountants LeMaster & amp; Daniels' 30-year CCX projections, for example, they footnote that several other cities are also studying convention facilities that could compete with Spokane's. "The effects, if any, of these competitive facilities have not been considered in this projection," the accountants wrote.
That, says Hager, is proof that the PFD and company are deceiving the public by withholding pertinent information.
Withholding or twisting facts: It's the same charge leveled by CCX proponents against Hager. "His information is not accurate," says Lynch, "It's flawed and distorted."
PFD Executive Director Kevin Twohig notes that LeMaster & amp; Daniels weren't supposed to study other competing facilities but just provide a spreadsheet. Even if half a dozen other cities from Kennewick to Olympia build conference facilities, says Twohig, "Does that mean we don't do anything? Isn't that a call to arms? I believe in the American way: We get out and compete."
Is CCX a grand opportunity for the region, an economic engine to kickstart jobs? Or, is CCX "corporate welfare," as one opposition brochure calls it, or the song of a Pied Piper, as another one depicts? So many of the stones being cast in the situation depend on one's point of view, and one's level of trust.