by Cara Gardner

No matter how many exciting theories you have about boosting the economy and creating a thriving, diverse cultural landscape, nothing will change without action. So far, Spokane seems to have plenty of ideas but perhaps not enough action.

So Spokane County Commissioners Kate McCaslin and Phil Harris are planning to take a turn at the spinning wheel of economic development theories and setting the county on an action-packed course. On Wednesday, Dec. 8, Spokane County is putting on the first annual Spokane Regional Economic Development Summit, when a few hundred of the region's professionals will be asked to come up with a cohesive plan for economic growth in the Inland Northwest.

"This is really the first time the county has stepped up to the plate with other economic development partners to look at our strategy," says Erik Skaggs, newly appointed director of the county's Office of Economic Development. Skaggs says the summit, which will run from 7:30 am to 1 pm at the Davenport Hotel on Wednesday, will rely heavily on audience participation: "This is a roll-up-your-sleeves [conference], not a sit-back-and-listen conference."

Economic development has been an especially frustrating point for the Spokane community, particularly because producing an economic revival has been the focus for just about all the area's leading bodies -- from government to grassroots. Yet the region continues to suffer from low-paying jobs and high poverty rates. Stagnation persists and an overall can't-do attitude stifles even trivial projects, not to mention major overhauls in the region's economic paradigm.

For years, Spokane leaders have worked to promote the economic theories touted by experts from consulting firms and universities across the nation. Comprehensive studies and reports have been drawn up regarding economic prospects for the Inland Northwest, many of which contain recommended strategies that haven't been fully realized in collaborative ways. That's what the commissioners hope the pending summit will do: pull the literature and the leaders together and come up with an action plan.

Skaggs says the summit has four main goals: defining a measurable vision for economic success in Spokane County, designing and choosing the strategies that will get the region to that vision, delegating organizations, leaders and institutions with tasks associated with those strategies and, finally, ensuring that those responsible for employing the strategies are properly funded and resourced.

Skaggs admits it's a lot to expect from a half-day conference and says the county is putting on a second summit at the end of January to complete the agenda.

In addition to galvanizing the different players involved in economic development, the summit will address accountability, says Skaggs; when money is funneled into economic projects, results are expected.

"It allows the county commissioners to be able to show and have a greater level of comfort about the funding that's being provided, which is about $400,000 a year," Skaggs says. "If we can reduce duplication and if we can help bring more focus, and if the organizations understand who is going to be the lead for various strategies, then when we look at funding requests and the use of taxpayer dollars, we can begin to see return on investment."

This all may be easier said than done, but if anything can be learned from failed projects and a flailing economy, it's the importance of utilizing diverse strengths and working -- and here's that word again -- collaboratively.

The summit is possible based on in-kind donations from a number of different groups, and Walt Worthy, owner of the Davenport Hotel, is donating the space. Skaggs says he expects as many as 350 people to attend, noting that leaders from Lincoln and Whitman counties are planning to come, as well as some interested people from North Idaho.

Skaggs stresses the positive tone of the conference, which means he's hoping past grudges and petty politics will be checked at the door.

The summit is not only a test for whether leaders in the area can come up with an efficient action plan, but it's a test for Skaggs and Commissioners McCaslin and Harris as well. This is McCaslin's last hurrah before leaving office; if the conference is deemed a success it will reflect positively on her legacy. In addition, the commissioners hired Skaggs, a former Met Mortgage executive, amid some controversy. So it's his chance at a fresh start, too.

"I'm very optimistic that the conference is going to go really well," he says diplomatically. "I'm enjoying putting it on and working with the different people involved."

The first annual Spokane Regional Economic Development Summit is free. To register, visit

Publication date: 12/02/04

Spokane Lilac Festival Armed Forces Torchlight Parade @ Downtown Spokane

Sat., May 21, 7:45 p.m.
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