Spokane has been the center of the so-called Inland Empire since its creation as a mining and railroad town back in 1881. And even well before that, when indigenous tribes fished the falls for the abundant salmon.
But the river's polluted now, the mines have all but dried up and the trains no longer run on time. Spokane seems to have lost sight of its raison d'etre, its driving force. Is it a farm town? A government town? A hospital town?
In the process it's lost sight of revenues. Faced with yet another budget shortfall, and the possibility of either taxing itself out of a hole or slashing more services, it's looking for answers.
We've looked for a few answers in this week's cover package, but here's another question: Who needs Spokane, anyway? After all, while city officials in Spokane are picking up pennies on the street, Spokane Valley and Spokane County have balanced their budgets. Small cities like Liberty Lake and Cheney are growing like crazy. And the resort towns of Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint are booming.
So who needs it? Are the successes of its surrounding cities linked to Spokane's success, or are they independent of it? If the city of Spokane were wiped off the map next week, surgically removed from the landscape, what would become of this Inland Empire?
We put that question to people who ought to know.
Spokane Area Regional Chamber president Rich Hadley suggests that, without Spokane, the surrounding cities "wouldn't be there." He goes on, "If you pull Spokane out, you're pulling out 55 percent of the county's population, 55 percent of all the consumers. It is the downtown for the region. It is the higher education center for the region. It is the community center for the region. It is the warehouse and distribution center for the region."
The city's economic adviser, John Pilcher, agrees, saying, "Without Spokane, the rest of the county would not be nearly as prosperous or as desirable a place to live."
But others suggest that the recent success of surrounding cities might be, in some ways, attributable to Spokane's failures. City politicians have been crying for years that Spokane's perceived unfriendliness toward business has prompted businesses to locate outside the city limits, in Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake or Cheney.
"It's our fault," says Spokane small-business owner Dallas Hawkins, who is running for City Council. He points to companies like Buck Knives, which he says looked at 20-some cities, including Spokane, before it chose to settle down in Post Falls.
In such a case, is Spokane's pain the rest of the region's gain?
"I don't know that I would say that," Coeur d'Alene Mayor Sandi Bloem remarks. "I don't think any of one of ours successes is based on the weakness of someone beside us." She stresses a regional perspective. "There is no city in this region that could be successful by itself. We all depend on each other. The health of one is the health of another."
So Liberty Lake swiping business away from Spokane is a good thing for the city? "Spokane will continue to be healthier because of the health of the surrounding cities," Bloem believes.
Sandpoint Mayor Ray Miller says that while his city is further from Spokane, it still feels the Lilac City's presence. "I believe it'd be a factor, yeah. It's far away enough so that you feel isolated, but it's close enough to be convenient. Without that it would be more difficult to attract people [to Sandpoint]." Asked what would happen to Sandpoint if Spokane were wiped out, he says, "That would be a considerable impact on our resort income. There are a great many Spokanites who either own or rent property here and spend a lot of time here. Most of our commodities are supplied from Spokane. Transportation-wise, it would cause some problems, especially with the airport."
Miller and Bloem agree that without Spokane International Airport -- which is a self-sufficient, tax-free entity, but which creates a regional economic impact of more than $1 billion a year -- their cities would be in dire straits.
For most leaders in Spokane, however, the question comes back to downtown Spokane. "I think a healthy region requires a healthy core, a healthy center. In our modern society, the center of a community is often the entertainment capital, the culture capital," says Pilcher, the economic adviser. He believes downtown Spokane is that center. "You don't have a world-class opera in some of these outlying areas. You don't have The Lion King coming to a high school in Liberty Lake to perform."
The link seems tenuous. Do that many working stiffs in Medical Lake really care about opera? About The Lion King? Former Seattle Mayor Charlie Royer thinks it's more than that.
"I'll never forget what [Baltimore developer James] Rouse told me," Royer remarks. "He said, 'People want to be together. They won't tell you they do, but they do. Especially if you have a nice place for them that's safe and there's high-quality stuff going on. Look at Pike Place, look at Harborplace [in Baltimore], look at the great cities of Europe, where there's a town square where you can't get through the crowds most times of the day. The facts speak for themselves: People do want to be together.'"
Who needs Spokane? Everybody, apparently. Especially Lion King fans.