Two-headed alien babies aren't news. (Okay, if there was one, that would be a front-pager.) Neither are gardening tips, or movie reviews, or Britney Spears photo spreads. Those are all fine things in themselves; they make fine dinner conversation; and, they often come wrapped in pages of news. But they're not what journalism is all about.
So what's news? It's stories about the people around us, the things they do and the environment we inhabit. News is word of the world beyond our immediate horizon. Some of the biggest news events are the ones we don't see coming -- like the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But many news events are slower-moving targets, ponderous and powerful developments that sculpt our community.
Here are 10 vital local stories we believe will shape our region in the coming year. Some of these are obvious, others are question marks; they pose possibilities that are worth watching and consequences yet unseen.
In 2001, robbers and thugs were busy in Spokane, but the most dramatic trends striking the region were meth and vehicle theft -- two oft-related crimes, according to police.
Authorities have busted more than 180 meth labs in Spokane County in 2001 -- more than double the previous year. Metro police say they see no end to the explosion of methamphetamines, because they're so easy that a high school kid can whip up a batch in a closet. In North Idaho, though, the future is less clear. Meth lab busts in the Panhandle were down from 90 (57 were in Kootenai County) in 2000, to 58 this year (41 in Kootenai), according to Capt. Wayne Longo of the Idaho State Police.
Longo credits the decline to vigorous police work and mandatory minimum two-year state sentences for meth cooks. Still, he says, it's a problem that's not going away.
So look for more meth busts in 2002, along with property crimes like auto theft, as meth addicts steal to pay for their habits. (Spokane city took reports of more than 1,600 stolen vehicles, a spike of more than 35 percent from the previous year.) Many car thieves and burglars "work harder than you or I do," says Dick Cottam, city police spokesman. "They're at it seven days a week, because most of them have a drug habit. There's no days off from that."
One crime aspect to watch is the city police reorganization of its 57 detectives. Instead of catching all investigative cases based on neighborhood beats, as they do now, detectives will be organized into specialized units -- sexual assault, fraud, etc -- sometime early this year. The hope is that cops, crime analysts and prosecutors will make more coordinated, effective attacks on crime.
There will be one regional news story in 2002 that's open-and-shut: the Spokane Convention Center expansion. Either it's going to get done this year, or it just won't get done.
The bottom line is that a special state sales tax refund is critical to paying for the proposed expansion of the convention center, estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $100 million. The deadline to qualify for this special funding source is the end of the year. To qualify, the stars must align -- the property owners next to the existing convention center, Spokane city, Spokane County and the Spokane Public Facilities District (PFD), which currently runs the Spokane Arena. Oh yeah, and voters must approve the deal so that construction can start by the end of December.
That's a lot of stars.
"I'd have to say we're as far along as we've ever been," says Kevin Twohig, executive director for the PFD. "We've recently had a 7-0 city council vote and a 3-0 county commission vote for resolutions supporting the proposal."
The city wants an expanded convention center to entice new convention business. The county wants the deal sweetened with money for projects in the Valley, like renovating the fairgrounds -- a sweetener to the tune of about $20 million. The PFD board must be convinced there's a realistic plan to operate the expanded convention hall profitably.
That's why, right now, the PFD board is examining the results of a recent architectural study and awaiting the completion of a financial study examining the two proposed expansion sites. The city has agreed to act as real estate broker, Twohig says.
After five years of talk about building a snazzy new convention hall -- and paying for expensive Valley projects, too -- the parties have just a few months to cobble together a solid plan and convince voters to support it.
Imagine you have a dream to start up a hot dog stand in a park. Only, a few neighbors didn't like the idea. We don't want it in our park, they say. It's in our way, you'll destroy the greenery.
The idea fails, but it doesn't die. You nurse the idea for that hot dog stand, and six years later, you're back -- this time across the street, out of the park and out of the way. Now, your old opponent says he's on your side; Why, it's a great idea! he declares.
Replace that hot dog stand with a science center, and that's essentially the story with Spokane's Park Board. The idea failed by a narrow public vote in 1995, when the center was proposed for the middle of Riverfront Park. Now, proponents want a science center and 3D IMAX theater built on an empty 5.6-acre parcel across the river -- one that's out of the park, yet easier for people to drive to. Old adversaries are new friends of the plan, like Steve Corker, a City Council member who energized the opposition seven years ago. A science center, placed across the Spokane River, he says, would be a "perfect complement" to the park.
Last week, the Park Board directed Park Department staff to issue a nationwide request for qualifications (RFQ). It's essentially an invitation to private developers and operators to send their resumes, says Paul Crutchfield, a staff member who's worked on the issue. The RFQ asks interested science center developers to reply by the end of January, according to Crutchfield. "We're asking those that are interested to come to Spokane," to deliver more information.
The RFQ is just a beginning, officials say, but it's an actual step toward the estimated $11 million project. Perhaps this time, a science center will be in step with voters, too.
A NEW CITY
The lines are drawn on a map, but for now, they're just lines in the sand.
The question about whether the supporters of incorporating a new city -- Spokane Valley -- have achieved viable momentum is settled. They do. There will be a vote. The open question is, for which city, exactly? The one with the property tax-rich Yardley shopping area -- with its Home Depot and Costco raking in $14 million in sales taxes each year -- or a collection of 'burbs without Yardley?
The question remains somewhat up in the air because the city of Spokane has until the end of this week to file an appeal of the proposed Spokane Valley boundary. That decision may not be made, or at least announced, until the last minute. City Attorney Mike Connelly said late last week that city officials were still hoping to negotiate to recoup sewer and water installation costs incurred when the city extended its lines to Yardley.
"Obviously, we want to protect our investment," says Connelly. The city has also expressed interest in annexing the tax-wealthy Yardley area itself, as one of several potential expansion places.
If the path remains free of boundary appeals and other legal obstacles, the incorporation vote will be on the ballot March 12. The proposed city would have 82,000 residents. It would stretch between Liberty Lake in the east and Spokane in the west (at Havana Street), and Interstate 90 would bisect the new municipality. Though voters rejected incorporation in 1995, the explosion of business growth inside the proposed city, including the Valley Mall, along with forecasted lower taxes are reasons, as proponent Dennis Scott recently said, that "the concept of incorporation needs to be reconsidered."
Have a job? Then the economy might be doing just fine for you. Be thankful, though: Unemployment has peaked as the region's economy as slowed. Economists say the Inland Northwest -- both Washington and Idaho -- is likely stuck in a stagnant market for several months, with a mix of bad news (Boeing cuts, state university cuts, slumping agricultural and mineral prices) and bright spots (an expanding health care industry).
"All the indicators we have for 2002 is that it's going to start off real slow," says Doug Tweedy, North Idaho labor economist for the Idaho Department of Labor. Tweedy predicts a "stagnant" economy for most of the year, but he sounds one note of optimism: "I think we've taken all the hits we're going to take."
Oregon has the highest jobless rate in the nation (7.4 percent, seasonally adjusted), but Washington's is not far behind at 7 percent, according to the state Employment Security Department. Idaho as a whole is not doing so badly, with a 5.1, which is several points lower than the national average -- but people in the Panhandle continue to struggle with finding work. The most recent rates show 8.7 percent of them are out of work, up more than a point from October.
The good news for North Idaho is that recently enacted federal tariffs should deflect some cheap Canadian lumber, allowing Panhandle sawmills to swing back into action with higher prices for their wood products, says Tweedy. In Spokane, economic waves from Boeing's restructuring and other western Washington job losses will continue to splash over for some time, says Grant Forsyth, assistant professor of economics at Eastern Washington University. Trouble in Seattle means a leaner state budget, and that equates to fewer state dollars flowing to rural, Eastern Washington areas for everything from road projects to well-paying state college jobs.
On the bright side are the expansions of hospitals and health clinics around the area, including major construction plans at Deaconess and Sacred Heart hospitals. Says Forsyth, "These people don't make trivial salaries."
When the Columbia Journalism Review went looking for the nation's top newspapers, it found just two in the top 25 that were independently owned and had less than 200,000 Sunday circulation -- in other words, only two weren't large, corporate papers. One is the Spokesman-Review. (The other is the Concord Monitor of New Hampshire.)
But Spokane's daily paper -- it's one of North Idaho's, too -- is facing serious pressures. At question is how this civic institution will weather the slumping advertising market, family dynamics, a new editor and diminished public trust from the River Park Square parking garage controversy.
Since June, Spokesman brass have trimmed 25 of its 161 newsroom staff positions. The cuts were necessary, paper officials said, due to sagging revenues and from family pressure (about 50 family members have shares) to reduce costs.
"We got quite fat," says Shaun O'L. Higgins, the paper's marketing and sales director. The paper has no plans for more layoffs, he says, but then, "you don't know what business conditions are going to be." The same loss of advertising that's struck corporate chains of newspapers has dented the Spokesman, too.
Says Higgins, "While we've been caught in the waves of what's been going on, things have been much more stable here. We don't go from calm to 25-foot waves, we go from calm to eight-foot waves."
Steve Blewett, chair of Eastern Washington University's journalism program, says that family dynamics will play a huge and shadowy role in the paper's future.
"What they want is as big an issue as anything else. How committed will the family be to keeping a paper in Spokane?" says Blewett.
Cowles family interests in the region form a complex web that includes the paper, KHQ-TV, board memberships, charity activities, property holdings and River Park Square. Weak reporting by the paper on that last bit of family business probably cost the paper a certain amount of public trust, says Blewett.
"It is the most difficult task in any business," Blewett says of dealing with related interests. "It is the same thing as trying to operate on a family member if you're a doctor... I think if they take the lessons they've learned to heart, they can regain the public confidence. But it's going to take hard work."
THE DAVENPORT DISTRICT
New York has SoHo. Philadelphia has the Avenue of the Arts. Question is, can local shops and artists coalesce into a Spokane arts district?
There's already an emerging downtown neighborhood of restaurants, performance venues, art galleries, retail spaces and artist studios called the Davenport District. It will hit its stride when its namesake, the Davenport Hotel, opens this summer. In a few weeks, the various boards of the Davenport District project will present their Strategic Action Plan to the City of Spokane. If accepted, the plan will be the blueprint for creating a recognized arts district in downtown Spokane.
"This plan is an articulation of how to create a sustainable arts district in Spokane," says Mike Edwards, director of the Downtown Spokane Partnership.
Like a child who's outgrown a nickname, the district recently changed its tag from Davenport Arts District to Davenport District.
"Arts is kind of a funny term," says Edwards. "It can be nebulous on the one hand and restrictive on the other. We felt that changing the name to the Davenport District was just a little cleaner, and in terms of marketing, we thought this was a better way to promote the Davenport District."
Still, arts and culture are the lifeblood of the district. The area includes the Met, the Fox, the Blue Door Theatre, Bitters Co., Art by Yourself, Quinn's, Fugazzi, Interplayers and "Art Alley" behind Far West Billiards.
"Wouldn't it be great if, when the Davenport reopens, right outside the door there would be an ever-changing menu of the visual and performing arts?" says Edwards. "One week it would be ballet, another week it would be a band, the week after that it would be sculpture. It would bring people back week after week, and it would benefit all the restaurants, galleries and so on in the area. That's the kind of creative synergy we're hoping to foster."
Silver Valley cleanup
North Idaho has been mining country since the first days of its discovery. Huge silver ores have laid the foundation of many a family fortune in Coeur d'Alene and Spokane, but where most of the mines are long closed, the environmental cost of that industry's success is just coming into focus.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established that high concentrations of heavy metals are pervasive in the area's animals and plants. Arsenic, cadmium, copper, zinc and lead are the chemicals found in highest concentrations, and the ones with the worst health consequences for people living in the area.
Health studies have documented elevated lead levels in the blood of children exposed to lead in the soil and water in their North Idaho homes.
Researchers have followed a plume of sediment, lead and other heavy metals across the state line into the Spokane River. Last year, the Spokane Regional Health Department posted signs along the river warning people against fish consumption because of contamination with heavy metals.
The indicators are all here -- we have a major environmental mess on our hands, with huge public health consequences to follow if nothing's done.
There are few solutions visible on the horizon. Meetings and hearings have been held and lawsuits have been filed as the cleanup saga gets more and more complicated. Just last week a former EPA employee accused the agency of botching up most cleanup attempts made so far in the area. Miners are suspicious of the EPA, and the tourism industry does not want the label "Superfund Site" pasted across its ski hills and scenic lakes.
Only one thing is known for sure: The heavy metals are not going to disappear on their own. But how do you go about cleaning heavy metals out of water and soil in an area so large? And who's to pay the bill? The state of Idaho? The federal government? The mining industry? Residents can only hope they'll see some answers to these questions in 2002.
The North-South Freeway has been a hot potato at City Council and neighborhood meetings since the 1950s. During the decades of debate, the imagined freeway has followed many routes, most memorably the Hamilton-Nevada corridor -- a route that would have necessitated a tunnel underneath Gonzaga's campus fields. That proposal wasn't met with a whole lot of support.
But in August 2001, the Washington State Department of Transportation (DOT) actually did hold a groundbreaking ceremony for the new highway, which is correctly termed the North Spokane Corridor (US 395). This project will be developed in two phases: Spokane River North (Phase 1) and Spokane River South (Phase 2), and it'll pave a six-lane limited access highway from I-90, north along Greene Street, continuing north on the eastside of Hillyard, and joining the current US 395 at Wandermere.
But inquiring minds will notice that this new freeway by no means is the equivalent of a North-South Freeway. Actually, it's more like an easy-access-to-I-90-from-the-northern-parts-of-the-county type of freeway. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But commuters heading north from the far end of the South Hill are still stuck with few choices when it comes to getting off the hill in a hurry. DOT had proposed a widening of Perry Street combined with a new I-90 on-ramp, but residents in the neighborhood put an end to that. Ray Street is not bad, unless you hit it during rush hour -- the new Fred Meyer at the bottom of the hill hasn't exactly improved the traffic flow in the bottleneck there.
The North Spokane Corridor comes with a total price tag of $1.36 billion, most of which has yet to be found in the shrinking state and federal coffers. How soon that funding is located will determine how soon the project will be completed. The story in 2002 may be the search for funds more than the laying of asphalt.
A controversy that appeared headed for the courts since its early stages will meet that destiny in 2002. In both state and federal court, aggrieved parties (including the developer of the mall, Spokane's Cowles family, the city, the investors who bought the bonds that funded the project, various consultants and attorneys) will try to absolve themselves of blame while shifting it onto other parties. The size of the blame is in the tens of millions of dollars.
The city has come through the heated rhetoric stage of this saga, and in early 2002 it will enter the plodding legal phase. With a trial date for the federal case set for January 2004 (no, that's not a misprint), the next two years will be spent on discovery, depositions and motions. By the end of 2002, there should be more clarity, as the results of the lawyers' interviews with the various players will become public record (unless there is some kind of protective order, as has been secured on a limited basis for the state proceedings).
Some of the more interesting individuals to be deposed (out of the 65 listed) will likely give their testimony in the coming year. Testimony from Betsy Cowles (the leader of the project), Bob Robideaux (the manager of the mall), the folks from Walker Parking Consultants (who wrote a deeply flawed report others relied upon), Nordstrom (which was portrayed as planning to leave Spokane in 1995) and various city officials should come early in the process, starting in March.
In state court, where the developer and Steve Eugster are trying their cases, the big question is whether the issues will be put on hold until the federal case is tried. Such a move would be opposed, but could happen to prevent overlap of issues. Meanwhile, there is always hope of a settlement derailing the coming day of reckoning. Since nothing has happened so far, it doesn't seem very likely -- unless the course of depositions starts to rattle the developer, which would be called upon as a part of any settlement to renegotiate what looks like a great deal .
And the political side of the story will likely persist, as it has for the five years since the public-private partnership was entered into. Ironically enough, just when the federal case is set to start, Spokane will be swearing in a new mayor. Will Powers seek reelection? Will the issue gobble up his political capital, as it has for so many other local politicians? Look for more pieces of the puzzle to fall into place in the coming year.