by Pia K. Hansen

It was standing room only in the boardroom at SIRTI on Tuesday morning. All three county commissioners, Mayor Jim West, City Council President Dennis Hession, Betsy Cowles, Rep. George Nethercutt, the presidents from all area colleges and a veritable Who's Who of Spokane's business community in the same room, all waiting patiently.

After all, it's not often that three members of President Bush's cabinet come to town. And it's even less often that they bring a $3 million check with them.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Treasury Secretary John Snow, Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Small Business Association Administrator Hector Baretto were all perched on barstools on a small stage in front of the gathering of more than 100 people. The cabinet members were on a bus tour of Washington and Oregon to promote the federal government's programs and initiatives aimed at stimulating economic growth and job creation.

"It's probably the first time in the history of Spokane that we have three secretaries here at the same time," said Dr. Patrick Tam, executive director of SIRTI, when he was doing the formal introductions. "We are looking to Congress to continue to support the economy so we can create the kinds of jobs that will let us provide for our lifestyle here in the United States, a lifestyle that's second to none."

The $3 million federal grant comes from the Economic Development Administration (EDA) and it's going toward the construction of a new SIRTI Technology Center (STC), which will be located near the site of the brick building that used to house the Spokane Marketplace. A potential extension of Riverside Avenue across Division Street would mean the new building would be located at Riverside and Pine. Currently, it's a mostly vacant lot, owned by SIRTI.

The STC is expected to open around May 2005. It will be a vital part of the new University District centered upon the Riverpoint Campus.

The EDA has never funded a project in Spokane County before, but the economy around here has apparently reached a low that allows for projects like this to qualify for federal funding.

The positive side of that coin is that the STC is expected to create about 1,200 new jobs over the next decade. The facility will be a combination of commercial science labs and office space, especially appropriate for biotechnology and the biomedical sector -- both industries that, along with the general health sector, are enjoying growth in the region.

"What a spectacular vision and building," said Evans after a tour of SIRTI. "I'm sure the president would call this 'entrepreneurial heaven.' It was a real treat to go through this building and see two young upstart companies, one with four jobs two years ago, and 15 jobs today, and the potential for hundreds of jobs in just a few years."

But from there on, what was supposed to have been a check presentation focusing on all the good SIRTI has brought to the community since it was founded in 1994 turned into a kind of campaign stop for the president.

"[The President's] focus is to make it easier to compete by keeping the taxes low -- we have plenty of money in Washington, D.C.," said Evans, getting a good laugh from the crowd.

Secretary Snow followed the same path: "We want to make permanent the across-the-board tax cuts implemented by the president. Equity capital is what new companies use. We used to tax that at the highest rate across the world -- we don't do that anymore."

Chao said decreasing labor regulations helps job formation. "As the president has said many times, 'One worker out of a job is one worker too many,'" she said. " We have industries that are desperately seeking workers." Chao added that the federal government has programs for training and retraining of all types of workers.

"We operate 51 job training centers in Washington state alone," she said. "Just last year, $562 million have come back to Washington state through all these programs -- that's your tax dollars coming back to you."

Baretta was a bit more focused on the task at hand -- job creation: "Smaller businesses have 14 times as many patents as big businesses do. SIRTI is a great example of how that can happen. The law says that 23 percent of our spending has to go to smaller businesses, and we usually make that without a problem. Last year we set up, and through that Web site alone, we set up 11,000 individual appointments with companies who wanted to do business with the government or other partners."

Evans blamed the growing trade deficit on a slowing global economy, calling the economies in Japan and Europe "anemic."

"That makes it hard for us to trade with the outside world," he said.

And that was the end of that hour. In the midst of all the excitement, someone almost forgot to present the check and take the official photos.

"Yes, we almost did forget," said Dr. D. Patrick Jones, director of external affairs for SIRTI and one of the key players in securing the grant. "But however that happened, we are grateful we received the money and that we got the attention of three cabinet secretaries all at once."

Publication date: 02/19/04

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