by Inlander Staff

Let's say there's a family -- kind of dysfunctional, but no more than most. It's Christmas, and for their oldest kid, they wrap him up a brand new Xbox. The younger brother? Not even a lump of coal. A couple of years go by, and Mom and Dad start to feel a little guilty. So they finally decide to get the younger one his very own Playstation 2. Here's the question: Should the younger brother take the gift or leave it under the tree?

In that little fable, the Mom and Dad are the Washington State Legislature, the older brother is Seattle and the younger brother is -- you guessed it -- Spokane. After helping Seattle and King County build nearly $1 billion in stadiums in the 1990s with tax rebates and other funding mechanisms, the legislators started feeling a little guilty. So they decided to allow other municipalities to take advantage of similar tax rebates for public facilities, like convention centers.

Which brings us to the May 21 vote on expanding the Spokane Center, improving the Spokane County Fairgrounds and pumping some cash into the Mirabeau Point project. We say, don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Take it.

How rare is it that Olympia lets localities keep the sales tax they generate? Let's just say that with the current financial picture at the state, it won't be offered again anytime soon. Oh, and there's a catch: Construction must begin by the last day of 2003. So now is the time to act. Fortunately, volunteers and public officials have been working on this for more than five years, and a blueprint is already in place.

The convention business is one of the more subtle currents in the community; everyday citizens may never even know it's there. But as an industry goes, you could argue there's none cleaner. Visitors come to your town, and they leave behind their money. Spokane's convention business has plugged along for years, with a steady stream of conventioneers coming to Spokane since Expo '74. The trouble is, conventions have become bigger and more complex to stage -- Spokane's facility just isn't big enough to compete for the meatiest portion of the convention market anymore.

But if expanded, Spokane's facility will compete very well in its class. Its location along the Spokane River, right on a giant urban park, is unmatched. There's a worry that Spokane will build it and they won't come. Don't worry, they'll come -- and they'll rave about it to the folks back home.

The expansion also represents another piece in the puzzle of downtown Spokane, which slowly but surely is rebounding to have the kind of critical mass that successful urban cores all share. Public projects can create an illusion of success, but when they spur private spending, they become solid investments. Public projects in the early 1990s, for all their problems, did ultimately help bring more private investment. This expansion should do the same. It's also important to note that downtown businesses -- from the audacious Davenport Hotel to the humblest lunch counter -- will be more successful with an expanded convention center.

No, the plan is not carved in stone quite yet, and that could be a concern for voters. Clearly, it would have been better to bring a specific site plan to voters; as it stands, it will go in one of two locations -- to the east or to the south of the existing facility. That means voters have to trust that the plan will be carried out successfully.

But why should we trust local government to do anything right? That seems to be about the loudest critique of the plan. It's also the laziest. While the county commissioners have mended fences with their constituents in recent years, it's clear that the City of Spokane still has a long way to go. But guess what? Neither would be responsible for this project (though Spokane County would issue the bonds). Instead, the Public Facilities District would lead the way. Created by the state to take public facilities out of the hands of politicians, the PFD, which now operates only the Spokane Arena, has been a big success. Ultimately, the city would turn over the Spokane Center to the PFD (although the city would continue to pay a small subsidy).

Implicit in this whole effort is the question of whether voters can trust the PFD, which is overseen by a board of volunteers appointed by local elected officials. We say the PFD can and should be trusted -- they've earned it. (Even if you don't trust them the way we do, the plan only goes forward after the county commissioners and city council sign off on it, so there is yet another safety valve built in.)

And even though the $19 million of the deal earmarked for Mirabeau Point and the Fairgrounds might look like a bribe to get county voters to jump on the bandwagon, it is real money that will pay for much-needed upgrades. Here's the real message voters in the county should hear: A strong downtown is good for you, too. Safeco Field has been a money-generator that has been good for all of King County, Puget Sound -- even Washington State. More conventioneers in Spokane will be good for the whole county. Downtown Spokane is the heart of the region, and if you don't take care of your heart, the whole body dies.

The best part is, this won't really cost anybody any additional money. They say there's no free lunch, but this comes pretty close. No new taxes are levied; existing ones are extended into the distant future. And the state, over the life of the project, is going to ship $36 million of sales tax money back to the project that would otherwise be swallowed into Olympia's general fund. So what are we waiting for? Let's tear open that gift and start playing with it.

Vote yes on Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 on May 21.

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