by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.

The exclusive Inlander/KXLY poll on River Park Sqaure and its troubled parking garage reveals, among other things, that people tend to like the project but not the deal

Currently, given everything you know about the River Park Square development project -- including the shops, theaters and garage -- how do you feel about the project?

Strongly or mildly favor: 49.8%

Strongly or mildly oppose: 22.4%

Not sure/Refused to answer: 27.8%

The survey results you are looking at are the result of a cooperative effort between KXLY News, The Inlander and, of course, those residents of Spokane who answered our questions about the River Park Square parking garage. Our two companies teamed up to undertake this study because we shared a feeling that there has been a missing piece in the debate: the public's point of view.

While we are all quite familiar with what the developers, elected officials and local pundits have to say about the issue, we wanted to pin down what the average, taxpaying citizen thinks. And as you'll see, they have some very clear opinions. Sure, we all have our anecdotes about what people think, gleaned from conversations by the coffee urn at work or while on the bus on the way home, but only through the science of statistical analysis and unbiased research can we accurately quantify the local mood on the matter.

Strategic Research Associates of Spokane, an independent affiliate of the KXLY Broadcasting Group, conducted our study. The poll was conducted between May 5 and 10, and 500 residents were polled, giving the results a margin of error of & plusmn;4.4 percent. Respondents had to be 18 or older and not employed by a media organization. Households were randomly sampled, but the selection was designed to represent the city's various zip codes proportionately to the populations contained therein, which ensures accurate representation from all of the city's neighborhoods. The sample was also designed to be representative of the city's actual age and gender breakdowns.

In some cases, the pie charts you see in this section don't add up to 100 percent because we didn't include people who refused to answer or said they didn't know the answer to our question.

After developing our list of questions, the baton was handed to Steven Dean, director of Strategic Research Associates, who designed the seven-minute survey and tweaked the questionnaire to remove any bias from it.

"We are an independent subsidiary, " says Dean. "Our reputation as an objective source of information is very important to us. We don't take sides, and we try to make the questions as unbiased as we can by eliminating words that have negative or positive connotations. We even rotate the order of the questions to remove bias that way, too. "

As our discussions grew from this project, and in light of the important elections coming up in the fall, we started to see many more areas of public opinion that would be useful to better understand. So watch The Inlander and KXLY News in the coming months for more about what the people of this community really think.

The City Council

Parking meter revenue should be used to help support the garage:

Disagree: 48%

Agree: 31.4%

Neutral: 19%

Don't know: 1.6%

Regarding the way the city council is currently handling the parking garage issue, do you tend to:

Disagree: 38.8%

Agree: 19.2%

Neutral: 36.8%

Don't know: 5.2%

In debates on the parking garage, the city council usually splits into two groups... From what you've read or heard, which of these two groups do you tend to agree with more:

Those supportive of the plan, including Higgins, Greene and Holmes: 27.2%

Those critical of the plan, including Talbott, Eugster, Rodgers and Corker: 46.4%

Not sure: 25.8%

The results of our Strategic Research Associates poll show that the people of the city of Spokane don't like the job this city council is doing, as only 19.2 percent of them agree with the way the council is currently handling the parking garage issue. But then, they don't like the way the council of three years ago handled the issue either, as 48 percent disagree with using parking meter revenues to support the garage, which is just what that council agreed to do.

If the 19.2 percent figure is an approval rating, it is shockingly low. Why it's so low, however, is an open question.

City Councilman Steve Corker sees it as a case of the people wanting the council to attend to more important things. "People see our top priorities as streets and public safety, and here they see us devoting a lot of time to a lesser issue. "

Others outside the council, however, read the figure as the public being fed up with the council on issues beyond the garage, ranging from the Lincoln Street Bridge to the failure to focus on good jobs. "We ought to take a careful look at how we spend our community capital, " says John Stone, a Spokane business owner and critic of past councils. "In the last five years, we're talking about $28 million for a museum, $31 million for a parking garage and now they're asking for another $100 million for a convention center, none of which will drive new jobs. If we want the disposable income that allows us to shop at Nordstrom, we have to invest in jobs, and I think people are starting to wake up to that reality. "

As for who people agree with on the current council, the new majority of John Talbott, Steve Eugster, Cherie Rodgers and Steve Corker has 47.4 percent of the people's trust, while the minority, which includes Rob Higgins, Roberta Greene and Phyllis Holmes, has only 27.2 percent of the people with them. Still, it's a small consolation after such a harsh rebuke (in the 19.2 percent approval rating). Erik Skaggs, director of government and community relations for Met Mortgage, which has been active in city politics, says the support for the new majority is a good sign, however, and thinks it may be rebuilding public trust in a way that will allow it to restore faith in the institution.

"This majority developed a lot of credibility with the public when it terminated the waste of taxpayers' money on the Lincoln Street Bridge, " says Skaggs. "The public likes that level of scrutiny, so it has credibility on the direction it is taking on River Park Square. "

But Councilwoman Holmes, who supported the pledge of parking meter funds, says the low rating shows that people in the community want the garage issue solved: "The majority wants to be right, but it shouldn't be, 'I told you so,' it should be, 'I have a solution.' Rubbing noses in the dirt isn't finding a solution -- leadership is finding a solution. "

The poll results are especially tricky for future candidates, who will need to take a position on the garage. While Mayor Talbott's position is well known, the other candidates for strong mayor -- Jim West and John Powers -- have been more tentative. And it's not surprising, as the polling shows a significant level of support for the overall project -- those who strongly or mildly favor it running two-to-one ahead of those who strongly or mildly oppose it. But the garage is getting low marks for the deal behind it (as in 48 percent disagreeing with the parking meter pledge). So there's no telling how the public might react to, say, Talbott's point of view, if the matter is still tied up in court come Election Day.

Holmes says she worries that some think keeping the issue alive through the election could be a winning strategy for them. "If it's going to be a hot election issue, it'll be that people are disgusted, " she says. "It could backfire. "

Corker agrees that the numbers indicate people would like to see a speedy resolution. And if there isn't one? The Lincoln Street Bridge, which persisted despite heavy public opposition, may provide some clue (although it was a much more black-and-white issue than the garage). Several political candidates in recent years can trace at least part of their demise to that doomed span.

"The voters will not be pleased if this council allows itself to get bogged down on the garage, " says Skaggs. "This council promised to fix the roads and pledged to create jobs, and that's what the people want them to do. "

Corker agrees: "They could throw everybody out, as they should. "


Do you think the following media's coverage of the parking garage issue has been fair and unbiased (the percentage is how many said yes):

The Inlander: 78.2%

KHQ-TV: 77.4%

KXLY-TV: 75.2%

KREM-TV: 70.1%

The Spokesman-Review: 50.2%

The local media frenzy surrounding the River Park Square parking garage seems to have accomplished one thing: Most people (69.2 percent) believe they are very or moderately familiar with the issue. It's an impressive number when you consider the complexity of the issue and how dry, by media standards, it can be. Although there are personalities involved, which is how you often see stories framed, it's an issue characterized by numbers and legal definitions -- not exactly the fodder of gripping television.

Another question, however, may indicate that the public is a little less enthralled by the issue than local news editors may think. When asked whether experiencing specific media's coverage influenced them to read or watch more, the responses from people saying they were influenced to watch or read more ranged from only 4.2 percent (for KHQ-TV) to 12.7 percent (for The Inlander). In other words, not that many people are making media choices based on parking garage coverage (although the question doesn't account for people's set media habits). Perhaps people just don't care that much or are burned out on an issue that has dragged on for nearly five years.

But there was a significant result in a question about whether people believe various media's coverage has been fair and unbiased. While most local media hovered in the 70-80 percent range, The Spokesman-Review was only seen as providing fair and unbiased coverage of the issue by 50.2 percent of the people. It's a figure that shows that the issue is damaging local institutions beyond City Hall. The Spokesman-Review, also named in the poll as the place most people get their information about the issue, is owned by the Cowles family, which is the developer of the project that includes the troubled garage. Some locals have long argued that The Review has a built-in conflict of interest, as the goals of good journalism (especially playing the role of public watchdog) may not match up with the goals of the parent company's real estate interests. Apparently a high number of people in the community agree.

"The Spokesman has done an adequate job of reporting what's said at the council meetings, " says Erik Skaggs, director of government and community relations at Metropolitan Mortgage, "but a poor job of investigative reporting on the issue. "

Spokesman-Review Editor Chris Peck disagrees, saying his staff has been digging into the issue. He points to a major recent two-part series on the garage and its finances as proof that the newspaper's owners are not telling them what to put in or take out of the paper.

"Our credibility is extremely important to us, " says Peck, "and the fact that people have that opinion is something we need to take notice of. "

Peck also points out that local TV stations don't offer opinions, which may skew people's perceptions. The Spokesman-Review's editorial pages have been supportive of the project.

"We have an editorial page, TV doesn't do that, " he says. "But we have run a lot of letters and invited commentary from people of all opinions. We do our best to maintain a clearly defined wall between the editorial opinions and the news coverage. "

Peck's point makes sense in light of the fact that KHQ-TV, also a Cowles-owned medium, has the highest fair and unbiased rating of the TV stations. Although KHQ may not cover the issue as aggressively as KXLY or KREM, as some say, they have managed to negotiate the rocky issue of their ownership in their viewer's eyes.

But Peck also sees the paper's low number as proof of the newspaper's role as lightning rod, or a case study of blaming the messenger, in which any number of ills are laid at its doorstep. "I don't think it's constructive to have people try to undercut the credibility of the newspaper for their political purposes, " he says.

Others, however, see the number as proof that the people of the city expect more out of its leading source of information.

"A growing number of people are interested in seeing responsibility out of the newspaper, " says John Stone, a local critic of The Review's garage coverage. "We cant be a healthy community with a divisive newspaper. "

The Garage

People who have used the garage four or more times a month:

Ages 18-34: 48%

Ages 35-54: 32%

Ages 55 and older: 10%

In the past four months, about how often have you visited downtown Spokane for shopping and leisure:

About 1-4 times a month: 56.8%

Less than once a month or never: 42.8%

In the past four months, about how often have you visited River Park Square for shopping or leisure:

About 1-4 times a month: 38.6%

Less than once a month or never: 61.2%

In the past four months, about how often have you used the River Park Square garage:

About 1-4 times a month: 26.6%

Less than once a month or never: 72.8%

Questions about the parking garage seem to confirm what many already understand: A lot of people are not using it. Nearly three-quarters of the city has used the garage less than once a month or never in the past four months, with 57.4 percent saying they have never used it in the past four months.

The garage's failure to perform is at the crux of this issue, since if it were meeting expectations there would be no controversy. And with so many people not using it, the question is why? Is more aggressive marketing needed? Should the downtown validation program be tweaked, not just for the RPS garage but for the entire parking system? Is the controversy creating a kind of silent boycott that is adding to the garage's problems?

"The negative publicity about River Park Square has undoubtedly had an impact on the garage's performance, " says Michael Edwards, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership (DSP), which administers the parking validation program that includes 75 businesses and eight parking areas, including the RPS garage. Edwards says his organization is looking at the validation question, but he says the problems will be easier to fix after the current controversy is settled.

For one thing, the Pubic Parking Development Authority (PDA) has been unable to hire professional managers while the issue has simmered along. Professional managers are expected to tighten the screws on the operation in a way that could encourage more use.

"We have a college intern managing the garage, " says City Councilman Steve Corker of the PDA's lone employee. "We need the professional managers in there as soon as possible. " In the meantime, the mall's manager, R.W. Robideaux and Co., has been operating the garage.

And without closure on the financing issue, there isn't much chance of implementing the suggestions of the month-old Keyser Marston Study, which offers ideas culled from other downtowns.

But Edwards finds some positive signs in the numbers. On the question of how often people have visited downtown Spokane for shopping or leisure in the past four months, 25.4 percent answered never. Edwards says when the DSP asked a similar question in some research it conducted last summer, that figure was more like 35 percent, so he sees some progress. Downtowns across the nation, he says, are never visited by all of a city's residents. The trick is to find your market and make sure you are servicing it.

"Downtowns are definitely niche markets, " says Edwards, "and that niche is a little bit younger with a little more disposable income. "

The survey seems to support that idea, as heavy users of the parking garage are clearly younger -- 48 percent of the people who say they have used the garage four or more times in the past month are between the ages of 18-34, while the 55 and older set only accounts for 10 percent of the heavy user group.

Solving the Problem

The city should renegotiate the parking garage contract with the developer:

Disagree: 17%

Agree: 57.8%

Neutral: 21.4%

Don't know: 3.8%

If one thing is clear from the polling, it is that people want to see a solution to the problems surrounding the River Park Square parking garage. And the majority sees the only way out in the two partners sharing the pain that comes from an investment gone bad.

When asked whether the city should renegotiate the parking garage contract with the developer, 57.8 percent agreed, while only 17 percent disagreed, ostensibly including those who want the city to just pay what it takes to keep the garage afloat and those who want the city to pay nothing and get out of the deal however possible. When presented with the idea of having the city and the developers submit to binding arbitration, the number that agreed went up slightly (but not significantly, considering the poll's & plusmn;4.4 percent margin of error) to 58.4 percent. But the number that disagreed dropped even more, down to just 11.6 percent.

With such a majority behind the idea of a settlement, the question becomes whether one is possible. With some council members content to let the courts decide and others heading out on their own, negotiating deals and floating proposals through the media, the city seems gripped by chaos. Meanwhile, the developers have backed off from negotiations, awaiting a proposal that has the support of a council majority.

Meanwhile, the plan that the city council voted to pay to have developed by Lehman Brothers and its own bond counsel Roy Koegen is ready and waiting. That plan calls for the city to issue about $23 million in bonds, add in about $3.5 million the foundation has left over from the first issue, and pay off the bondholders at something well below what they expected to earn on their investment. Apparently this approach has been vetted by Lehman Brothers in New York and would be acceptable.

Then the city would renegotiate the contract with the developer, putting the payment of ground rent at the top of the list, followed by debt service on the $23 million and then operations expenses. If there isn't enough at the end of a given month to pay operating expenses, the developer would be on the hook for the shortfall -- not the parking meter fund. The city does its part by putting its name on the line to bail out the deal, and the developer does its part by agreeing to cover any future shortfalls in the garage. The plan has yet to go before the council, however, and there's no telling if it will be acceptable to the developer, because they won't discuss it until the council agrees to support it.

One thing the council and the developer are unlikely to accept is binding arbitration, despite its high level of support in the community. John Stone, a Spokane business owner and critic of the parking garage plan, is one who thinks binding arbitration is the best way out: "This happens in construction all the time. You won't get everything you want, but you'll save all the money and time you'd spend on court battles, and you'll get to where you'd probably end up anyway. "

The city is also unlikely to accept the deal that Steve Corker worked out on his own with the developer that would have the city and the developer share the responsibility for the garage's shortfalls for four years. And the hope of some to have the developer hand over the land under the garage to the city as part of a settlement is unlikely, too.

The wild card in all this is the desire among some in City Hall to investigate what happened as a way to perhaps get off the hook for what has turned out to be such a bad deal. But does a negotiated settlement preclude a continuing investigation? Some say no, you can do both, but others remain concerned that a settlement will mean that the truth about some of the more suspicious aspects of the deal will never get out.

So with such stark differences between the two sides -- not to mention the bad blood that exists on a personal level -- along with the fact that the parties will appear across the table from each other in court on May 23, are the people of Spokane naive to expect their elected leaders to be able to work out a solution that doesn't include years of costly litigation and putting the city's bond rating at risk? Perhaps they are, but the fact of the matter, as reflected in these poll results, is that if the city chooses to do otherwise, it will be a clear violation of the majority's will.

Spokane County Interstate Fair: Fair Food Drive-Thru @ Spokane County Fair & Expo Center

Sun., Sept. 20, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
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About The Author

Ted S. McGregor Jr.

Ted S. McGregor, Jr. grew up in Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep high school and the University of the Washington. While studying for his Master's in journalism at the University of Missouri, he completed a professional project on starting a weekly newspaper in Spokane. In 1993, he turned that project into reality...