by Leah Sottile

It's hard to watch a weatherman who predicts sunny days ahead when it's pouring rain outside. After a few too many rain-soaked picnics, you'd probably turn him off. Spokane's not much different. For years, Spokane declared that our big-city dreams were coming true -- the hustling, bustling, urban center was right around the corner. The arts district would do it. No, a downtown mall would make it happen. No, it's the mayor -- we need a new one. A few downtown apartments would be nice, too.

But when every solution has turned up short -- unsupported, short on funds, rife with controversy -- wasn't it starting to look like Spokane, with all its wide-eyed guarantees, was simply making empty promises?

And in the meantime, did people get sick of waiting, only to stray away to Portland, Seattle, Boise or even California before Spokane's promises could ever be fulfilled?

A story from The Inlander's infancy once considered the origins of the Davenport Arts District. Then-Arts Editor Andrew Strickman raved that "the skeleton of the arts district existed from the start.

"Things are looking up for a project that has seen lethargy and naysayers at every juncture, but hurdles still remain," he wrote, noting that the framework of the arts district stood firm between the Met, the Magic Lantern Theater and Interplayers.

That story was written in 1993, and it took nine years before the first street banners designating the district were affixed to downtown light posts.

And even Strickman, back in the early '90s, had his doubts when discussing the Arts District. He praised Karen Valvano's "full-time devotion to the project," which "gave the Arts District the push it needed to move from vision to reality," Strickman wrote. "But the process was slow and prolonged, and many people began to wonder whether it was just talk."

It's talk that has been circulating since Expo '74: a fantasy of having the bright city lights and the 24-hour-a-day activity that comes with a successful arts district -- with urban living, corner grocery stores and open-all-night greasy-spoon diners. Those amenities are all a part of the dream of seeing the renaissance that city officials and local developers have claimed was around the corner for years. Dreams of being a real city -- one that's taken seriously by the big boys of Western Washington, one where you can find something to do at any hour.

They're dreams that are actually rumored, this time around, to be real.

Where Too Many Have Gone Before -- They call themselves pioneers. It's a sad-but-true title for those who put their money on the line in hopes that Spokane isn't crying wolf any longer.

That's what Michele Mokr & eacute;, co-owner of the Artist Tree boutique, calls herself.

"We're pioneers -- you kind of have to be to come into business here," she says.

Mokre sounds dejected as she discusses the attitude of people who venture into her store, and the recent closure of her neighbor, the restaurant JoeCo Brazil's.

"They just weren't supported by the community enough," she says. "They had a lot of things going for them."

She and Alesha Carlender have held the keys to their store at 828 W. Sprague for a little over a year now, and Mokr & eacute; says that she's seen a lot of people come and go, peruse her store with a smile or with their noses turned up to the prospect of her store's offbeat, downtown, urban attitude invading their city.

"I think that there is still a small-town mentality. People want the easy way," she says with hesitation.

But optimism still overwhelms her. Asked if she thinks downtown is ready to accept a major urban center, she responds, "You know, I'd say yes. I think to say no would be counterproductive. Maybe it will make people stop and think, 'Well, if other people want this, maybe it's not such a bad idea.' [Saying no] brings on more negativity," Mokr & eacute; says.

But according to Mike Edwards, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, the Spokane Renaissance is more real now than ever.

"People often talk about 1995 and how people were nervous that downtown was in freefall," he says. "I think downtown is a better place. It is a more stable and attractive investment option for real estate types."

And that attraction to investing in Spokane could have never happened without the Davenport or River Park Square, Edwards says.

"The Davenport is now [completed], and people come downtown and experience it. Then the people who come downtown see new opportunities. The Davenport can make something like the Baby Bar happen," he says. "You get those high-quality things that weren't feasible before."

Edwards notes that the good (and even the bad) publicity of River Park Square has turned heads around the West Coast -- shining a light on small town Spokane that allowed outside investors see the city's potential more clearly.

"It brought awareness that things were going on in Spokane," he says. "Walt Worthy will tell you that he wouldn't have done the Davenport without River Park Square."

Outside Blood -- Perhaps one reason that the renaissance was delayed longer than city revivals like Portland's Pearl District and Seattle's Belltown is that Spokane relied too heavily on insider funds for too long.

"There are a limited number of players. Within the region, there is a limited amount of money that's willing to be invested in projects," Edwards says. "There are new players. Those are really compelling signs that the downtown renaissance is real this time."

(The recent failure of outside investors to save the Rookery Block, however, proves that even outside money can be stymied - see "Coming Soon: A New Parking Lot," page 13.)

Still, Edwards discusses how seeing those outsiders take interest inspires local investors to try playing their hands locally again. Local suburban developer Dick Vandervert recently completed a project at Division and Second Avenue and now oversees the project in the former Lamont's space. Coeur d'Alene developer Marshall Chesrown recently purchased the 77-acre Summit property north of downtown. Daylight Properties, a Bellingham, Wash., real estate company recently snatched up the downtown Peyton Building.

"Downtowns are hot -- it's hot real estate," Edwards says. "We are seeing a lot of private investment that is stimulated by some of the public investments we've made. We're seeing a lot of private folks come in."

That's something that Rob Brewster, local developer of the spanking-new Montvale Hotel, is happy to see after the amount that he has contributed to Spokane.

"I actually spent a year here in 1993," he says, "and my question was, 'Do I want to make it happen here or go somewhere else where it's already happening?'"

Brewster says it's frustrating to see how tightly locals hold onto their money in Spokane and then complain when things aren't happening fast enough in town. "Everybody wants something, but some people just aren't willing to participate," he says, adding that the revitalization of downtown "can't be on the shoulders of Walt Worthy, Rob Brewster and Ron Wells. It's got to be everybody who wants to participate."

Open for Business? -- On a Thursday afternoon on Main Avenue, a woman stands in a black trench coat with an oversized "P" button. She's standing by one of the new parking kiosks -- a recent development that did away with some of the street's parking meters.

People stream in and out of River Park Square with bags from Nordstrom and Williams-Sonoma. Two clerks struggle with furniture boxes from Pottery Barn while the doors of Starbucks open and close across the street.

And on the same Thursday afternoon, people are already hitting the cue ball and sipping pints at Far West Billiards. The new Montvale sign revolves over a stream of downtown traffic, and waiters have a smoke outside of CenterStage's front doors. A corner of the nylon Grand Opening sign comes loose over the entrance to Rock Coffee and waves in the cool breeze.

Spokane stands at the intersection of these two streets: the corporate, chain-based shopping hub of Main Avenue, and the independent, locally owned entertainment base of West First.

Edwards says that it may be those chains that can stabilize Spokane's rickety downtown and ensure that the renaissance is real -- but it's the local businesses that give Spokane the character it needs to stand out.

"I think that in 1950, people were used to shopping in downtowns that were filled with locally owned stores. But now, more and more, predictability is important. People like to go to Starbucks because you can get a more consistent cup of coffee. That never occurred to me, but it's true," he says.

"That makes it difficult for local shops to compete against them on price, services and merchandise selection. But the independent businesses -- that's what makes downtown nice. We don't tend to take [visitors] to the places that they can go to [in their own downtown]."

But in some cases, capitalizing on the success of chain stores and restaurants has been beneficial to some local businesses.

"Our business is better since the Big Easy opened up, and since the Davenport opened. I think everybody feeds off each other," says Mark Henriksen, owner of Slick Rock Burrito and the Baby Bar.

Henriksen expanded his business to downtown after owning the Slick Rock Burrito at 29th and Grand for years.

"I wanted a downtown presence -- I didn't want to just have a strip-mall presence," he says. "I just liked the vibe of downtown. And I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but it's getting better. It's because it takes the Red Robins and the theaters with their huge advertising budgets to get people downtown."

And they have.

The AMC Theater has been a major people-magnet, and in its first 11 months since opening on the corner of Monroe Street and First Avenue, the Big Easy Concert House has brought more than 250,000 people into downtown -- into an area that hadn't seen activity like that since the glory days of the Fox Theater.

"It usually takes arts, culture and entertainment to bring the excitement and buzz to a downtown that then spurs a feeling with developers that a downtown is popping and ready," says Greg Marchant, general manager of the Big Easy.

That popping feeling just couldn't happen back in 1993, when the biggest arts anchors in town were the Met and the Magic Lantern. It took the national AMC Theaters, the Boise-based Big Easy, River Park Square and the construction of a new convention center to actually make it happen this time around.

And while Henriksen, between Slick Rock's lunch crowd and the late-nighters at the Baby Bar, is seeing steady business, he and Mokr & eacute; agree that no local businesses are going to be built surrounding the chains if landlords don't lower rents.

"For a lot of businesses to make it downtown, landlords can't charge exorbitant prices. They'd rather sit on a building and make zero, and wait for a McDonald's or Starbucks to come in," Henriksen says.

"I know a lot of people who would open some really creative businesses down here. But some of the buildings are coming up with these really high rents," Mokr & eacute; says. "They think that this is going to be some kind of hot spot -- but it's not yet. They have to let businesses get going for quite a few years before they can do that."

Vote With Your Feet -- Sure, the renaissance may be real this time around, but that doesn't mean history won't repeat itself.

"Spokane may be a little slower than other communities, but that's OK," Edwards says. "We're usually behind the curve."

Everyone has an answer for what would push downtown over the edge from a mid-sized city to a bustling urban center. Henriksen wants more parking. Mokr & eacute; wants lower rents and more local businesses. Edwards wants downtown housing and a downtown grocery store. But are they simply crying wolf one more time? Are they complaining that Spokane's downtown can't possibly make it unless it first has this, that or the other?

The fact of the matter is that no downtown -- no matter how full it is with businesses and nightlife spots, art galleries and gourmet restaurants -- can succeed without consumer support.

"I think it's the chains that bring the shoppers downtown, because it's safe," Henriksen says. "They're not risk-takers. They aren't as willing to experience new things."

He laughs as he recounts when Slick Rock's smothered potato and Thai chicken burritos were featured in a local magazine. Soon thereafter his restaurant was full of people -- people eating either a smothered potato burrito or a Thai chicken burrito.

"They'll come in here when they've heard about it in the paper," he says, referring to those chain-shoppers who ventured over to his local business.

But that's how urbanization of a downtown happens: in attracting those people who wouldn't normally come on their own to try the Thai chicken burrito without first hearing about it. Once they are coming downtown regularly, chances are they'll keep coming back.

So while Spokane may now have a lot more reality backing its promises of a real downtown, it still isn't quite living up to the sunny forecast predicted all those years ago. And if we cry too loud about success being here when it's not, Spokane might start to sound like an unreliable weatherman.

"We might say that [downtown is] still on the edge, and it hasn't arrived yet," says Mokre. "The debutante ball hasn't happened yet."

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Publication date: 2/24/05

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About The Author

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...