Spokane is no Detroit. Well-to-do white families aren't packing up their downtown apartments in droves and leaving the race-war-torn inner city for the peaceful, sunny suburbs. In fact, Spokane's population isn't falling at all. According to city and United State Census data, Spokane has grown by an estimated 1.8 percent over the last five years, and by 5.4 percent over the last 10. (This data includes the city's March annexation of 207 acres and about 1,600 new citizens.)
But compare that to the growth all around it and you get a different picture. For instance, over the last 10 years, the whole of Spokane County has grown by almost 9 percent. That's nearly double the city's growth rate. In the last five years, Cheney and Medical Lake have each grown around 14 percent. Even since their incorporations in 2001 and 2003, respectively, Liberty Lake and Spokane Valley have grown by 17 and 3.6 percent.
In other words, Spokane's still growing, but everybody else is growing even faster. Granted, as a large city with little room to move, Spokane's growth is naturally slower. But those other cities' pumped-up numbers seem to suggest that they've either discovered a stream of immigrants from outside the region, or they've begun to lure Spokanites away to the 'burbs. So what's happening?
Jon Eliassen, head of the Spokane Area Economic Development Council (EDC), says Liberty Lake has been successful in offering "a lifestyle people seemed to like," with wide-open land and the willingness to develop it. He and others think such a lifestyle has become increasingly popular in recent years.
Finding it in Spokane, however, is becoming increasingly difficult. Rich Hadley, president of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce says, "The city doesn't have much land available. That [kind of rural property] is very popular. There's more of that product in the county than there is inside the city limits." To build up Spokane's population and tax base by bringing in more citizens (or just keeping the ones it's got), he thinks the city ought to reconsider its "almost nonexistent ... annexation policy" and make more room for would-be homeowners with a lust for the country.
That, however, just illustrates another of the city's problems: the dreaded sprawl. Spokane's new economic adviser, John Pilcher, is quick to point out that Spokane, with a population just under 200,000 people, is bigger in land area than San Francisco, Boston and Newark, N.J. We are "not a geographically dense community," he says.
And some think that's a big problem.
Like the Environment Colorado Research and Policy Center, which issued a report in 2003 arguing that "the high cost of providing and maintaining infrastructure for sprawling development hurts taxpayers and contributes to ... fiscal crises." It went on to cite a Colorado State University study suggesting that sprawl costs Colorado county governments and schools $1.65 in service expenditures for every dollar of tax revenue it generates. In other words, the system collapses under its own girth.
It's this kind of unchecked strain on the economy that led to the creation of Washington state's Growth Management Act in 1990. The act required that local governments rope off urban growth areas (UGAs) and focus their development inside those boundaries. In so doing, cities and counties would promote cheaper, denser, more sustainable growth while protecting the natural environment beyond the boundaries.
The city and county of Spokane completed their growth plans in 2001. But two problems have emerged to blunt the kind of infill and "smart growth" the GMA was designed to promote.
The first, says county planner Bruce Hunt, happened just before the act was set to take hold, when 9,200 acres of land outside the county's now-adopted boundary were snatched up by consumers eager to acquire the land under the old, more relaxed laws.
The second is the ongoing tension inherent between the city's and county's urban growth areas. Many believe that the current Spokane County Board of Commissioners -- one of two bodies that hears complaints about the city's administration of its UGA -- too often green-lights development that violate the UGA, either in spirit or legally. City councilwoman Mary Verner indicated as much in a recent interview, calling the city's relationship with the county on that matter "strained."
Still, Pilcher says that smart growth and in-fill development are a "renewed focus" -- for the city, at least. Others believe that if any suburban flight exists, it'll soon be a thing of the past. Sean Shields, of the city's building department, reports that the city has already nearly issued as many new home building permits in under 10 months this year as it issued all last year. Perhaps higher gas prices will create greater density where regulations have failed.
And the EDC's Jon Eliassen -- along with Pilcher, Hadley, Verner and others -- points to several downtown condominium and loft projects already underway as proof that, as he says, people from inside and outside of the region (think: wealthy Californian empty-nesters) are "finding Spokane a very desirable place to live. People want to live closer to the downtown core. People want to walk." Not flee.