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It Can Be Done Here 

Perhaps Spokane used to define itself by its foibles and setbacks; all that is changing now

A major roadblock to Spokane's economic success and vitality has been lifted with the retirement of Doug Clark from the Spokesman-Review and the elimination of his column. Gone will be the very public and regular bashing of our community that has contributed to a cultural mentality that "it can't be done here." If Spokane were a publicly held entity, the city's stock price would have increased upon his departure.

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In 2009, after Clark penned a column claiming that servers at the Davenport intentionally stuck their fingers into glasses of water served to guests, I couldn't take his negativity any longer. I wrote a letter to the editor labeling Doug as "Spokane's biggest drawback" and added that his columns "significantly deter economic growth and prosperity in Spokane."

Clark responded to my published letter by naming me to his 22nd Annual "Budnick Award" list with the commentary, "I knew something was holding us back." Clark assembled this list annually to recognize his "favorite local dubious newsmakers from the past year." The award was named after Thomas P. Budnick, a former Massachusetts social worker who took a brief ride on the fame train after Clark outed his proclivity for filing Martian mining claims through Spokane County.

I admit that is pretty funny, but I felt I needed to speak out and was honored to make Clark's list.

I am ecstatic that impressionable youth in our community, and anyone monitoring Spokane as a place to relocate to or start a business in, will no longer be biased by a stream of unfavorable messaging. Clark's ongoing mission to emphasize every grain of dirt in our city no doubt fueled Spokane's grassroots brand of "Spokane Doesn't Suck," an effort led by Derrick Oliver (aka D.O.).

D.O. coined Spokane Doesn't Suck to combat an attitude of negativity he felt was prevalent and unwarranted. With no budget and without any formal research, Spokane Doesn't Suck has become the city's de facto tagline — particularly among millennials. D.O. is creative by nature.

Spokane is prone to suffering from low self-esteem, which has a tendency to become self-fulfilling. One example I am familiar with is Spokane-based Stay Alfred, a company on whose Board of Directors I serve. Last week, I had the opportunity to attend their all-company meeting.

Formed in 2011, Stay Alfred has established an entirely new hotel experience by offering well-appointed accommodations with multiple bedrooms, living spaces, full kitchens and washer/dryers located in many of the largest cities in the country.

At the all-company meeting, Jordan Allen, co-founder and CEO, good-naturedly recognized certain employees who, early in the company's formation, doubted Stay Alfred's ability to attain success. Some of the doubts Allen heard included:

• Stay Alfred won't be able to raise any real money.

• There isn't any talent in Spokane, you'll have to move it to San Francisco or Boston.

• You'll never be able to scale this thing; your team isn't sophisticated enough.

• You can't operate a real business in Spokane. It's a farm town.

These are actual, near-verbatim statements made by early Stay Alfred employees. I can't imagine such a list being compiled by a company based in Austin, Boulder, Bend or any other city Spokane considers a peer. Those who work for Stay Alfred are highly talented, incredibly innovative and passionately tenacious; yet they had been impacted by Spokane's "it can't be done here" mentality.

Allen, born and raised in Spokane, effectively challenged his team to overcome those false sentiments. Stay Alfred now employs approximately 110 people, currently operates in 14 cities, recently raised $15 million in growth capital, and has recruited key individuals away from other leading companies. It is achieving rapid growth and generating meaningful revenues, and already is profitable.

Culture often trumps everything else. Allen wouldn't be hindered by what others thought about Spokane, and he established a culture within Stay Alfred to combat prevailing thoughts about building a successful business in our region.

I understand the power and role of good journalism, and Doug Clark was a very colorful and entertaining writer. I just never understood why he was motivated to consistently look at the glass as half full. Maybe it was just easier to be a critic, or perhaps he just wrote what readers wanted to hear.

In any event, Spokane Doesn't Suck, and I'm delighted we have a new generation of leaders like Allen and D.O. who are highlighting and proving that, yes, it "can be done here." ♦

Tom Simpson is an entrepreneur, angel investor and advisor to startups and other businesses in the Spokane region. You can reach him at tsimpson@inlander.com.

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