December 23, 2008

Ridpath Creditility Gap

Did anyone ever believe this?

December 19, 2008

Snow Storm Communications

Communication is a wonderful thing.

If you remember, the City waited for more than a day last winter to fire up the plows when the snow began falling heavily. The delay caused crews to fall hopelessly behind, people began screaming and Mary Verner took five days before even addressing the issue publically.

Fast forward to this week: The record snow fall caused gridlock in Downtown, businesses closed and the city took on the eerie feeling that reminded me of when Mount St. Helens erupted. But while it’ll be extremely difficult to get around for the next several days and many schools and businesses are still locked up there’s not the public stress and outcry that we saw last year.

Why? Two things are different. First the City pulled the trigger early and threw everything it had at the storm. The second and most important difference is that Administration told us that it was on top of the situation and has kept us fully informed for the past two days. Almost hourly updates were posted on the City’s website which included plowing maps, weather reports cameras showing city streets. The Spokane Police Department used its RSS to push out information that was invaluable to everyone. And the Spokane Fire Department regularly updated its website to let us know where the biggest problems were.

With winter not even officially here yet we could see much more of this over the coming months. But as long as local governments continue to communicate and make progress on the problem residents will be supportive.

Now if we could only get Diamond Parking to let us know when its sidewalks will be shoveled…

December 9, 2008

Success in an Uncertain Climate

The rest of the country may be wringing its hands wondering what to do during uncertain economic times but not here in Spokane. Many groups are moving forward on large, very cool projects that clearly indicate that we are definitely not the same community that all but folded its tent during the severe economic down turn in the early 80s.

Just a few years after Expo 74 downtown began shutting off the lights as skywalks fell vacant, companies moved out of the core and governments sat by and watched. Now we see public, private and non-profit agencies pushing forward with projects worth millions of dollars that just a few years ago didn’t appear as if they’d get off the ground. The difference between now and then: strategic partnerships, better planning and good communications.

A great recent example is the emerging University District. When he was still at the City of Spokane, Tom Reese led the initial planning stages for the U-District that laid the foundation for others to carry out the vision. The Downtown Spokane Partnership and WSU-Spokane joined forces and enlisted the help of local governments, Spokane’s legislative delegation and private companies to create a specific U-District plan. The payoff came last week when Arthritis Northwest, WSU-Spokane, the DSP and Denver based developer NexCore announced the construction of a three-story, 60,000 square foot medical building---the catalyst that will launch the entire development of the 55 acre U-District.

Several years, a few false starts and hours or work were needed to accomplish this goal. The key was having a vision, creating plans to achieve it and having backup ideas just in case the first plans didn’t work out---which is exactly what happened. Other local groups with great ideas such as Mobius and the Parks Board can learn from this successful effort as they push their projects forward.

December 1, 2008

Local TV's Future

The question I'm asked most often is whether I miss being on TV. The answwer has always been a steadfast No! Lots of reasons why---including a New York Times article which confirms my decision.

This is already happening in Spokane. KXLY laid off 18 people a month ago, KHQ-TV Sports Director John Fritz resigned in early November---my guess is he'll be replaced by a part timer. Look for other anchors to head out the door in 2009. It's a trend that began several years ago---it's nice to be ahead of the curve. More TV folks will be looking to do the same.

November 30, 2008

Buggy Whips

I wonder sometimes whether prospective employers really think before they post job descriptions. Here’s what I’m talking about: a Spokane based international sales and marketing company ran a want ad in Sunday’s edition of the Spokesman Review seeking someone who is creative, a good writer, Internet savvy, understands social media and is adept at search engine optimization. So far so good---sounds like a great job. But here’s the catch: this unidentified company wants you to fax---that’s right, fax a resume! Are you kidding me?

Clearly, a job’s a job. But here’s a question you might want to ask before dialing that fax number even if you can do it from your computer: what type of corporate culture asks someone with extremely marketable and modern on-line communications skills to apply by using the technological equivalent of a buggy whip? I mean, if this is what a company thinks is creative I wonder what the bosses’ reaction would be when you asked them to create a Face Book account or suggest that Twitter might be an effective way to reach your target audiences.

I understand that prospective employers sometimes wish to remain anonymous during the initial recruiting phase. But we all know that blind email addresses can be created which will prevent job applicants from learning the company’s name. The bigger issue, however, is transparency. Employers want good workers---outstanding communications professionals seek solid and innovative companies. Hoping a fax machine spits out the type of person you want without providing vital information that helps people make informed decisions could be as productive as watching paint dry. So why not be up front, be proud of the company and let the market decide?

I’ll expect the company’s answer in a letter.

November 25, 2008

Another Kind of Bailout

Kudos to the Spokane City Council for two decisions that will enhance our quality of life and save us some money over the long haul. But deciding to regulate aggressive panhandling and recommending against using Conservation Futures money to buy the Downtown YMCA wasn’t done in a vacuum---lots of communication went into the effort to give Council members the right information to make informed and defensible decisions.

Providing law enforcement and business owners the tools to protect us from being harassed as we walk through our streets seems reasonable. But the challenge was for businesses, police and the Downtown Spokane Partnership to persuade Council members that the pedestrian interference ordinances were needed, reasonable and legal. Stakeholder meetings, lengthy discussions and transparent communication among constituents created a set of regulations that all Council members could support.

But those pushing to use $4.3 million of Conservation Futures money to buy the Downtown Y aren’t as adept. The Parks Board put a one million dollar non-refundable deposit on the building more than two years ago but did not follow up with any sort of communication effort to persuade the City to fork over the rest of the cash. So now with a late April deadline to close on the deal or lose the million dollars---and with no backup plan---the Parks Board hopes the Spokane County Commissioners bail them out. But the Council rejected a resolution supporting that idea---something about being stuck with a 20 year bond payment for an extremely expensive building the City doesn’t want and that’s going to be torn down in five years seems to be giving the Council heartburn. Those opposing the use of CF funds simply did a better job of communicating their side of the issue.

Developing effective messages and persuasive reasons for the City to take on this project could have prevented the Parks Board from looking foolish. Parks Board members still have time but as they squandered more than two years why should they suddenly change? My guess is they won’t.

November 18, 2008

Panhandling Solution

Downtown Spokane is never boring: great restaurants, excellent shopping, easily accessible services and colorful people have made my eight years as a Downtown resident and wage earner interesting, entertaining and generally fun. But I am concerned that despite all of our progress the number of aggressive panhandlers and what I term professional loiterers has increased to the point that our community’s safety, image and continued economic vitality are threatened.

I am continually barraged with aggressive demands for money regardless of what time of day or which street I’m on as I walk to and from my downtown office. I am also frequently forced to step over or around people camping in my building’s parking lot just outside the backdoor. And I have on at least two occasions called 911 because I genuinely feared for my or someone else’s safety.

There is at present no recourse for citizens or business owners to prevent people from aggressively soliciting money or from blocking the streets and sidewalks other than asking them to move on---requests generally refuse in the most vulgar of ways.

There is, however, a partial solution to this problem.

The City Council is considering five Pedestrian Interference ordinances that will have a positive impact on the quality and character of our Downtown’s street-life and businesses if they are passed intact:

They would help alleviate aggressive panhandling by giving police and business owners’ authority to move people away from building entrances.
The measures would prevent people from lying down in public rights of way such as sidewalks and alleys.
First Amendment rights are fully preserved.
They differentiate between freedom of expression and inappropriate behavior and strike a balance between the two.
Will continue to allow street performers and artisans who obtain permission.

We are all working diligently to continue making Downtown Spokane a safe, clean and vibrant environment which drives our community and region. Having the right tools at our disposal will ensure our continued success.

November 17, 2008

Work Around the Media

The media landscape is changing dramatically---especially in the way communications professionals try to engage local and national media organizations. In a recent presentation to the Spokane Regional Marketing and Communications Professionals---MarCom---I said that the traditional ways of persuading reporters to cover stories don’t seem to be working. So I suggested that they may want to take a more radical approach: go around the media altogether.

Here's what I mean. Technology allows us to either focus on specific audiences without filtering our messages through the legacy media or use on-line tactics to get the media's attention.

Two specific examples: Former Kendall Yards project manager Tom Reese recently announced on Spokane’s new local social networking site Launch Pad---INW that he was among the more than 300 people who were laid off from Coeur d’Alene based Black Rock Development---something all of Tom’s friends had known for a couple of weeks but a fact that had escaped media attention. It wasn't until Spokesman Review reporter Tom Sowa---also a member of this community---read Reese's announcement that a story was written. Reporters follow blogs and on-line communities to find out what's going on. Second example is even better. President-elect Obama will deliver his weekly addresses through You Tube---bypassing the media completely and allowing him to get his messages directly to his audience: you.

Bottom line---why spend money to get so-called "free media" when you might be better off using those resources to sharpen your messages and communicating directly with your target audiences? What you’re doing now probably doesn’t work as well as it did so trying something new can’t hurt!

November 3, 2008

Getting a Reporter's Attention

I’ve never been one to be above a little shameless self promotion---so here goes. The Spokane Regional MarCom Association---MarCom---has been gracious enough to invite me to make a presentation this Friday, November 7th on an issue that befuddles everyone who works in communications: how to get the media’s attention. I contend that a large club usually does the job but I hope to be a bit more subtle Friday morning.

It’s no secret that both the local and national media landscapes are in chaos. KXLY-TV just sacked 15 people and cancelled several news shows, (I believe this to be just the beginning), the Spokesman Review recently chopped another 27 people and advertising revenues for both traditional print and broadcast outlets are falling almost as fast as the Dow. Despite the problems we can still work with the media to effectively communicate our message---we just have to do it a lot differently.

Examples: Building traditional relationships has to be expanded to include social networking, there are better options than creating standard news releases and media kits and PR and Marketing professionals have to become experts at all things digital because that's where the media are going.

The presentation should be fun and provocative; I expect to learn a lot as well. Check it out. November 7th, 7:30 in the Spokane Club’s Georgian Room.

October 23, 2008

Spokesman Review Gaming the System

The other shoe dropped at the Spokesman Review yesterday as the final layoff notices were posted. Almost 30 people are gone from the newsroom. But it appears as if SR management is gaming the system. The three person radio staff producing newscasts for KJRB, which includes one manager, will move to sales and marketing. Two concerns here. The first is that the SR’s newsroom employment contract calls for a consistent proportion between reporters and managers. In other words when layoffs come on the reporting side an agreed upon number of managers must also be sacked.

But what the SR has done is simply move three people from one line item to another---including manager Dan Mitchenson. The company’s not saving any money; costs are simply transferred to another department. That’s good for Dan and his colleagues who will apparently remain employed but others didn’t have that choice. The SR says it’s contractually bound to produce radio news---always thought this to be bizarre but that’s another discussion---so it had to somehow keep the staff. Small comfort for the folks who are print reporters working for a newspaper that thinks it’s in the broadcasting business.

The bigger concern is credibility. I’ve known Dan and reporter Dick Haugen for several years and know they are honorable, honest and credible reporters. But now they’ll be working for sales and marketing---the Dark Side we call it in broadcasting. What this means is that all of the newsroom values no longer apply and that many stories will be off limits. Shaun Higgins, the radio folks’ new boss, is also a man above reproach---I like him a lot. But I’ve seen too many times over the years where the sales side wins arguments against news. Hope it doesn’t happen here. But as I’ve said repeatedly that while the game’s changed and the old rules don’t apply, the pressure to conform to outmoded models and ideas such as controlling news content to satisfy advertisers is stronger than ever.

October 20, 2008

Bad and Worse

Question for you: What's worse, the WSU football team or listening to so-called radio analyst Jim Walden? It’s a tough choice.

Hearing the WSU-USC game on the radio was like watching a train wreck in super slo-mo. Just when you thought the worst was over another car flew off the track and one more body crumpled in a heap. Long time play by play announcer Bob Robertson did his best to keep everyone interested. He’s had a lot of practice in calling losing games over the years because we all know that the Cougars are the Cougars. But he’s actually a good broadcaster: calls the plays, makes them exciting and is absolutely non-partisan even though he’s been with WSU since I was in grade school school…and that’s a long time ago.

Then there’s Walden.

Everything thing is “we should to this,” “our team,” “our coaches,” or “our players.” He thinks he’s still coaching the Cougs…which he hasn’t done since 1986…22 years!

This past Saturday was particularly pathetic. Walden had an excuse, apology or reason why Wazzu was losing after every play. But not once did he say that this is an extremely bad team or that USC was far superior in every way. All he offered were excuses for losing.

Probably his worst comment came when the score was 55 to nothing and the Trojans had just scored another touchdown: "The air just went out of the defense." Are you kidding me?

But I shouldn’t be so hard on the old boy…with a coaching record of 72-109-7 he has a lot of experience with losing. Guess his comments just come naturally.

October 17, 2008

A Better Social Networking Site

It’s been apparent for quite some time now that the media landscape is rapidly changing: The Spokesman Review’s cutting another 25 people or so, TV newsrooms continue to shrink and Google is redefining how we communicate.

So not to be left out a couple of folks working out of our little building at the East end of Downtown have launched a new social networking website aimed specifically at the audience that the legacy media have ignored and the traditional social network options don’t pay much attention to: local professionals wishing to actually connect with someone down the street instead of across the country.

Launch Pad, INW is up and running. Local entrepreneurs Bill Kalivas and Allen Battle have been working on the idea for the past several months and have done a great job of building something that can be used by all Inland Northwest business types.

As they say it TV: It’s Live, It’s Local and it’s Late Breaking! Check it out and let the boys know what you think.

October 10, 2008

Catchng Up

OK…so it’s been a while. Just got back from a little stroll across England. Called the Coast to Coast Walk. Lots of fun and a great way to spend a honeymoon!

So I come home and it seems to be business as usual: The Spokesman’s laying off 25 people, Smitty’s gone ostensibly because he and management didn’t see eye to eye on the cuts and Gary Graham---who by his own admission is in lock step with Smitty’s philosophy---is now the boss. Go figure. But I found it interesting that Shaun Higgins is speaking for the paper instead of Stacey. Yep---business as usual.

Otherwise, what else is new? Seems that the Downtown Plan update is on hold for awhile because the City Public Works Department doesn’t like some of the ideas even though Dave Mandyke has been part of the process since the beginning. The Parks Department is also miffed…and those folks have also been at the table. Yep---business as usual.

Some good news though: the Public Facilities District now owns most of the property to the south of the Opera House. (Sorry…INB Performing Arts Center still doesn’t work for me.) So if you’re a fan of The Blvd. you’d better hurry—it’s toast.

And finally it seems that Spokane Motorsports Park is a rousing success---as predicted. The County’s made some $150,000 since reopening it at the end of August. My client Pacific Raceways opted out of this last RFQ process but word is a couple of others are still interested. This will be a grand success—and if you are paying attention even Kim Thorburn and Bryan Sayrs are grudgingly admitting that their opponents did good. Yep---business as usual.

August 11, 2008

Affordable Housing: Let's Build Something

The Regional Affordable Housing Task Force that’s working on a solution to one of our more critical problems is alive and well and moving forward. Our 19 member panel has spent the past several weeks learning about the scope of the problem, where to find money for affordable housing projects and researching what other communities are doing.

And so far, so good. Most members are engaged, thoughtful and seem willing to create something that will actually make a dent in a large but generally hidden problem in our community. But ask any developer and they’ll tell you that our region is full of people who will eventually support well conceived and innovative initiatives but only if they first see something tangible.


Far too often well meaning people are thrown together with the goal of creatively solving big problems. Hours are spent in meetings, thousands of words are uttered, money is spent and hundreds of trees are sacrificed in order to publish splashy reports that are proudly presented to local governments where they are immediately shelved and forgotten.

We have an opportunity to be different. Here’s my suggestion: let’s devise, finance and actually build a unique, affordable housing, pilot-project to show the region that something significant and worthwhile can be accomplished. Completing an affordable housing project that includes the public and private sectors as well as non-profit agencies will establish credibility and help ease the way for future projects.

Such a demonstration project should be centered on an existing or planned urban transit center and provide specific development incentives including:

  • Performance based zoning
  • SEPA exemption
  • Parking ratio changes
  • Certainty in permit processing time
  • Planned action EIS Infrastructure funding from local jurisdictions
  • A program similar to Austin, TX’s S.M.A.R.T. that expedites permits, allows fee waivers and uses local governmental housing staff members to resolve development related issues.

Creating an innovative and unique project such as this would give the Task Force and any future partners something solid and beneficial to work toward. It would also be a lot of fun and could show the rest of the country that the best ideas come from the Inland Northwest.

August 5, 2008

Mayor Should Thank the Council

All those who agree that the Spokane City Council has just saved Mayor Mary Verner from a huge embarrassment raise their hands. Thought so.

The Mayor was pushing council members to put a $27 million bond issue on the November ballot to pay for a new police evidence locker and animal shelter. I recently suggested that Verner may have a good idea but that she needed to slow down, create a sound case and persuasive communication strategy before asking voters to spend that much money. Why? Her idea which popped up about two weeks ago needs 60% approval---she got less than half that from the City Council. Imagine what the voters would have done.

So now Verner must take advantage of the extra time to build her case which should include:

· Researching and deciding exactly what we need and why.
· Getting unanimous City Council support for her plan.
· Clear, consistent and compelling messages that resonate with voters.
· Creating a robust public outreach and media strategy.
· Finding the right team to run what is tantamount to a political campaign.

Council members seem to agree that we may need to spend millions of dollars on these proposals and have offered to work with the Mayor to prioritize what to build and how to pay for them. Verner needs to optimize this cooperative spirit and move forward as soon as possible. Otherwise, stalled momentum and growing opposition will team up to stop what might be necessary public benefits. Spokane has seen that too often---let’s not see it again.

August 1, 2008

Self Promotion

OK---I admit it---this is shameless self promotion---a rather vile habit that I learned while working with a guy at KHQ who still repeats his name every other sentence during live shots. So forgive me---but in my defense this does show that I've actually accomplished a few things this summer while having lot of fun at the same time!

Let me know what you think.

A River Runs Through It

Is Nothing Sacred?/BBB

What the Hay?

Smart Shopping

The Davenport

July 29, 2008

Out of Thin Air

Folks ask me periodically whether I miss the news business. My answer is always the same---nope. Until now.

The looks on the Spokane City Council members’ faces would have make great TV last week when Mayor Mary Verner asked them to put a $41 million bond issue on the ballot to pay for several new public buildings. Can you imagine sitting there when Verner walked in, trailed by her staff, and out of the blue suggested to the Council that the City needs a new street department building, an animal shelter, a new police shooting range and evidence storage building? Would have been a hoot to watch were it not so sad that there was absolutely no preparation, groundwork, communication or public outreach prior to Verner dumping the issue into the Council’s lap.

We may actually need the new structures. Who knows? Certainly not the Council or the public at this point. Paving the way for capital projects generally takes time, effort, lots of information and political savvy. But instead of creating a well thought out, robust and persuasive case for new taxes that 60% of the voters might support Verner pulls this initiative out of thin air just a couple of weeks before the deadline to put it on the November ballot. That leaves little time for the Council to evaluate the need for the new buildings or determine if Verner’s numbers are right. And has any research been done to gauge whether voters have an appetite for a large tax increase to pay for things that only benefit city employees?

Persuading community leaders, decision makers and taxpayers to support large bond issues can be done. I was a consultant on last fall’s successful campaign to pass a $42 million bond issue for Spokane’s parks, pools and playgrounds. We worked hard, raised a lot of money and had a compelling argument for the tax increase. But dozens of people spent long hours evaluating the issue and laying the groundwork before asking the Council to put it on the ballot.

That didn’t happen here. I also suspect the Mayor has no plan to organize a campaign to push the issue if it gets on the ballot. But don’t worry---this won’t be the last time this administration forgets that communication is a key component to running a city. Which means I will also have more opportunities to miss being on TV.

July 24, 2008

Spokane County Must Act Quickly

Call it common sense or just good politics but the results are the same: Spokane County now has at least a fighting chance to build a new jail. But only if the Commissioners and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich work quickly to lay the necessary groundwork to gain public support for what will be the largest bond issue in county history.

Commissioners were rushing toward asking voters this November to approve a $245 million bond issue for the project---it was shaping up to be an abysmal failure. No public education campaign was in place, strong opposition to the new jail’s proposed site near Downtown Spokane had surfaced and was working hard to kill the project and creating a political committee to push the measure was only an afterthought.

But the questions now are will the time be used wisely or will the Sheriff and Commissioners revert to form? If experience is any judge they will find themselves in the same position a year from now. Why? The county staffers in charge of designing the project have strongly suggested since last January that a public education program explaining the need for a new jail be established before anything else is done. That wise council fell on deaf ears for more than six months---the only thing that got the decision makers’ attention was the price tag.

The Sheriff and Commissioners must move fast to gain public support because opposition will not wane; opponents smell blood and will continue working to ensure that the project never comes up for a vote. But my guess is that nothing will be done on the communications front until after November. Throw in the holidays and we’re into January before the subject resurfaces---a full year after staffers recognized where their leaders should go.

Communication is the key to this project—always has been, always will be. But there are no signs that anything will happen any time soon.

July 11, 2008

A Positive Public Policy Outlook

Among the many lessons I’ve learned during my 30 years of public affairs experience is that even though a recommendation may not be what you want it’s best to stay engaged on a positive level with policy makers because there will always be another chance.

And here it is: Instead of awarding a short term contract with a local racetrack operator to get Spokane Raceway Park back up and running the Spokane County Commissioners will shift gears and seek a long term operator. Good for my client Pacific Raceways because even though we lost the first heat we’ll get another opportunity.

Why the change in direction? The Commissioners had hoped to salvage some of the summer racing season by working with an interim operator. But too many legal roadblocks and some new information about the where the race track should go has lead the Parks Department and the Commissioners to slow down, re-evaluate and pursue a long term agreement that will ensure the entire 317 acre sports complex will be successful.

I understand the political pressure to reopen what will now be called the Spokane Motorsports Complex as soon as possible. But the Commissioners are making a wise choice---and not just because it may benefit my client. They have one shot to do this right and start creating a first class recreational facility. Taking a little more time to find the right fit can help avoid costly mistakes down the road.

This brings me back to keeping a positive outlook when working in the public affairs arena. Criticizing adverse decisions might feel good but it rarely helps in the long run. Keeping your council and continuing to help decision makers reach their goals reinforces your credibility and reliability---it’s like money in the bank because there will always be another chance.

July 9, 2008

Losing Control of the Debate

Big ideas are great---I love them. But most of the time they won’t go far unless the groundwork is properly laid. Here’s the latest example from Spokane’s City Hall: Water Use Restrictions.

Mayor Mary Verner says that folks ought to conserve water and among the better ways to do that is limit when people can sprinkle their lawns. Sounds reasonable when you consider all of the energy going toward preserving the aquifer and the Spokane River. But Spokane residents love their green lawns so any hint of watering restrictions creates more than just ripples across the pond.

Major policy initiatives such as water restrictions need a great deal of explanation, background information and good old-fashioned schmoozing in order to gain the necessary support among the voters as well as the decision makers---in this case the City Council. Critical audiences need to be identified, facts gathered, key messages developed and a robust PR and media plan created in order to mobilize support for tough issues. Moving forward without clear, concise and persuasive messages and strong reasons for making a change means running the risk of losing control of the debate---which has already happened. City Council members Bob Apple and Nancy McLaughlin have expressed their opposition and letters to the editor panning the idea have already been published. The only thing coming from the Mayor’s office is that the City will be exempt from watering restrictions.

Most people probably would not argue with Mayor Verner’s vision to conserve water; many would even support her idea to limit some water usage which makes this a winnable issue. But it’s going to take more than just good ideas, sincere beliefs and noble intentions to make it happen.

June 27, 2008

Lessons Learned

Second place is nice but it’s not exactly I had in mind---and I guess I have to take the blame. My client Pacific Raceways finished a close number two in the selection process to become the interim operator of the former Spokane Raceway Park. Congratulations to Post Falls based Stateline Speedway who nipped us at the finish.

Here’s where I went wrong. I suggested to my client that a robust application should be submitted to the five member committee appointed to make a selection. Sound advice---as far as it went. We made a solid application and were clearly a front runner because PR is bigger, has more employees, has more racing days and has more experience. But I should have recognized that we had a disadvantage coming from Kent---that Cascade Curtain effect---and been more forceful in explaining to the client that we had to do a much better job than the local folks.

We made it to the interview stage but then I compounded my mistake by not communicating more clearly and persuasively that a stellar presentation was required. We had a plan to operate the track, answered all the questions quite well and were ready to get Spokane Motorsports Park back up and running. But I learned a few days later that the Stateline boys’ material and presentation looked better than ours---Stateline was rewarded for the extra effort.

A consultant’s job is to come up with ideas, recommend a course of action and, when necessary, insist that the client follow that advice. My friends would never accuse me of being a shrinking violet but I acquiesced too easily in this case.

Definitely a lesson learned. But at least I’ll know what not to do next time around.

June 20, 2008

Media Relations 101

Spokane County blew a great chance for some positive media coverage this week about its efforts to reopen Spokane Raceway Park. But the folks in charge of selecting an operator to get the dilapidated track up and running slammed into the wall when they decided to withhold what was clearly public information. It should have been an easy curve to negotiate.

The Spokesman Review’s Bill Morlin wanted to write a story about the groups interested in operating the track when the County finally gains control of the West Plains property. As a representative of Pacific Raceways, one of the outfits wishing to operate the track, I supported Morlin's efforts. There was no downside for Pacific Raceways to communicate our positive messages of keeping racing in the Inland Northwest and being part a plan to create a world-class family recreation facility on the 300 acres the County is buying.

The County initially declined to release the names saying it was trying to protect the privacy of the selection committee members and those of us vying to become the operator. I’m sorry---that doesn’t wash when you’re spending $4.5 million of taxpayers’ money; playing in the public arena means you’re open to scrutiny. The names were eventually released but the damage was done. A great story demonstrating how public money was being wisely spent turned into one that made it appear that the County was hiding something.

The shame is that story would not have been written if the County had been transparent. Decision makers either forgot or never learned among the basic rules of media relations: always give reporters as much information as possible at the outset. Doing so allows you to communicate your positive messages, establishes your credibility and doesn’t give a reporter any reason to believe you’re hiding something. Media relations are not tough---they just take a little extra thought and consideration about how you want to appear.

June 13, 2008

City Sustainabilty Effort Falls Short

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner has pretty much staked her administration’s entire reputation on the idea of sustainability. She has a director and a task force spending a $75,000 federal grant looking for ways to preserve our ecosystems and quality of life. My guess is that Verner is also using this to create an entire new bureaucracy---her legacy.

I see all of the City’s news releases so believe me when I say that more PR has been dumped into this effort than any of the Administration’s initiatives. Good idea as far as it goes but the Mayor may want to spend more time communicating her vision and expectations to city employees instead of pumping out news releases to a non-responsive local media.

Here’s what I mean: I wanted an adult beverage after finishing 18 at Indian Canyon recently when I saw the woman running the snack bar sitting on the deck puffing away on a cigarette. Strange, I thought smoking was forbidden within 25 feet of a door. I asked whether smoking was legal and she said “No, but we ignore the law so go ahead.” When I told her that I asked because I’m a non-smoker she indignantly sucked in another huge drag, blew it out through her nostrils and then flipped the butt over the railing toward the first tee. Classy.

But here’s the kicker. We finished our drinks and offered to put the empties into the recycling bin. “Doesn’t exist,” the same woman told us. “We don’t recycle here...we just toss ‘em.”

So much for sustainability.

These are only a couple of examples. But it seems that if this is how sustainability---and the law---are treated at the City’s premier golf course then it would be safe to assume that it’s being done with the Mayor’s blessing. If not then Verner has a problem.

Leaders can have the best intentions, excellent ideas, a ton of government money and public support. But unless they share their vision with the folks responsible for implementing the policy---employees---then the noble effort will be worth about what’s being spent on it. In this case $75,000 that will be gone by year’s end.

June 11, 2008

New Jail Already Has Opposition

No time’s being waste by those lining up against a new Spokane County jail. The $100 million dollar bond proposal isn’t even on the ballot yet and opposition has already surfaced. But it’s not the price tag---it’s the location.

The Spokane County Commissioners tabbed the downtown Courthouse campus as the best place for a proposed multi-story lockup and parking garage to replace the Geiger Correction Center which is losing its Spokane International Airport property lease in 2013. But the Commissioners failed to ask the surrounding neighborhoods and business owners whether another 1,000 inmates and the problems that such a facility spawn were in their best interests.

They used the state’s Essential Public Facilities system which is supposed to remove the politics from deciding where to build generally unsavory things such as jails. Ten sites were proposed; the downtown campus rated tops among three finalists. But the Commissioners did not have to select that one. Two other sites---county owned property off Tchsirey Road and private property near the Medical Lake exit on I-90 were also on the table.

That's where the communication between the decision makers and the public never started. Business owners, stakeholders and residents in the downtown and West Central neighborhoods were not included in the process. The Downtown Spokane Partnership, Kendall Yards and neighborhood groups say look at the area around the courthouse now---pretty much bail bond heaven with only a few struggling businesses. Imagine, they say, what it’ll be like when a detention facility about half the size of the 2,200 inmate Airway Heights Correction Center looms over the area: Not much of a chance for any sort of redevelopment along Boone Avenue, West Central could be doomed to remain among the poorer neighborhoods in the city and Kendall Yards would not be as attractive to residents or new businesses as it is now.

The Commissioners and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich need all the help they can get to persuade voters to approve the most expensive public project in county history. And with some powerful forces taking aim at stopping the deal maybe the Commissioners and Sheriff should step back, hold off on putting this measure on the November ballot and begin communicating with the folks who can help instead of hurt their efforts.

June 5, 2008

Spokane River Running

OK…indulge me for a few minutes while I toot my own horn a bit and maybe even communicate some new information. I was recently asked to write a piece about the Spokane River for Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living magazine. Good idea, I thought---the river’s interesting and I could always use the cash.
The title is a bit trite: A River Runs Through It: How Healthy is the Spokane River? Hope the rest of it is not but you be the judge.
And if you like that one I also wrote about Spokane’s affordable housing problem a while back.
See---I’m not just another pretty face.

May 28, 2008

Housing What?

So what about this Regional Affordable Housing Task Force? Bet you’ve never heard of it. The only reason I have is that I’m on it. Not a very good start for an idea that came about a year ago when almost 200 low income residents were forced to move from their mostly decrepit downtown Spokane apartments and the City said that a housing crisis was on us and that something must be done.

Here’s the scoop: It’s taken seven months for local governments to put the task force together; 19 of us are finally set to develop a comprehensive plan and implementation strategy that we hope will address among the more urgent issues that face the Inland Northwest---the need for abundant and affordable low income and workforce housing.

Task force members run the gamut: Representatives from non-profit housing agencies, developers, decision makers and generally interested folks who might have some skills to make things happen will meet six times between now and October to create something that I hope can be a model for the rest of the country. My role is twofold. I’ll represent the City of Spokane’s Community Development Board; my communications skills will also likely be called on. A recent magazine piece I wrote for Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living and my role as a downtown resident, community advocate and communications consultant should also help establish my bona fides.

We’ll have staff help from the City of Spokane and Spokane County but there will still be several challenges. Among the larger ones will be to create what Task Force members are being told is a Public Education Program. A couple of points on this---first of all we’ll have to decide what we’re going to educate the public about and then we’ll have to find the money to make it happen. Governments are notorious for creating committees and then ignoring the innovations that come from them. What I don’t want to see is just another thick report with lots of great ideas get sucked into a black hole never to be seen again.

It’ll be an interesting process---I’ll keep you posted.

May 22, 2008

Where’s the West End Going?

Been hearing rumors in my West End neighborhood for the past couple of weeks that things had gone sideways on a couple of big 1st Avenue rehab projects. Now I see that a legal notice on the Music City Building confirms that there’s some sort of tiff amongst the folks who are developing the Railside Center, the New Madison and the Otis Hotel. A Notice of Default directed at Steve Elliott, managing member of Spokane Partners, LLC, alleges that the company owes almost $504,000 to RenCorp. Not sure of the details but it’s never good when business partners hire attorneys and begin posting public notices.

I noticed that something was amiss about a month ago when it became apparent that work had stopped on the New Madison apartment building project. Too bad really as RenCorp is one of the good guys. The company has done several great historical redevelopment projects in the downtown area and is working hard to ensure that low income and work force housing is part of their portfolio. I just hate to see anything that slows down the momentum we’ve seen in the West End over the past year or so.

But the real interesting thing will be to see how this dustup between partners plays out publically. Best advice is generally for companies to come clean and let folks know what’s going on before the rumors really start to fly. I’m sure that lawyers for both sides have advised their clients to keep quiet---don’t they always? But here’s the thing: people are already talking, control of the messaging is slipping away and most of this will be in the public record anyway. So why not let us know what’s happening?

May 21, 2008

STA, Crime Check: Wow!

Honor is due…

Last week I suggested that the STA and Crime Check sales tax campaigns were in trouble…ooops. Both passed by stunning margins which lays to rest any worries whether Spokane County residents support spending tax money for public transit or public safety. Congrats to supporters and the folks who ran the campaigns.

I’m sure the super-majority votes also brought smiles to the Spokane County Commissioners---at least for today. Winning is always nice so the Commissioners can take credit for their parts in the successful campaigns; this also means they can concentrate on whether to move forward with a vote on a $100 million dollar jail bond this November without regard of what else is on the ballot. A loss of one or both of yesterday’s measures would have caused some long discussions whether voters were ready for three major tax issues this fall---that is no longer a concern. Now the Commissioners just have to decide if there’s enough time to cobble together a credible campaign for what will be an expensive, if not contentious issue or whether to develop a yearlong public education effort to explain why we need a new jail and parking garage near downtown. Lots to think about.

One other aspect of yesterday’s vote also won’t be lost on at least two of the Commissioners. Opponents of Republicans Todd Mielke and Mark Richard predicted that their recent decision to buy 300 acres of open space in Airway Heights which includes Spokane Raceway Park had put both the STA and Crime Check campaigns in jeopardy. Voters clearly decided there was no tie between the issues---which also lays to rest SRP as a political problem this November. Democrats will now have to look for another reason to try to unseat the two men who have shown they are not afraid to look to the future and make tough decisions.

May 19, 2008

Spokane Raceway Park: Moving Forward Despite Critics

The Spokane County Commissioners are moving forward to preserve more than 300 acres of open space for public use despite their critics’ best efforts to derail what will be a first class public amenity. The County won’t officially own the property which includes Spokane Raceway Park for another month or so. But Commissioners Todd Mielke and Mark Richard are aggressively working to open SRP this summer and ensure the entire area is eventually developed into a robust sports and recreation complex.

Here’s what Mielke and Richard are doing:
· Considering hiring a company to open and run the track for the next 18 months before signing a long term operating agreement. At least four different groups are vying to play. Full disclosure: I represent Pacific Raceways which is actively seeking to operate SRP.
· Discussing possible funding measures with Airway Heights to pay for infrastructure upgrades and full development of ball fields and playgrounds.
· Engaging the racing community to enlist volunteers who will provide money and muscle to cleanup and repair SRP for a summer reopening.
· Making preliminary plans to establish a state-of-the-art, regional law enforcement training facility on a portion of the property.

Mielke and Richard clearly allowed themselves to be needlessly beaten up by folks who don’t share their vision that publically funded recreational facilities include more than just trees. The two Commissioners were slow in responding with strong messages explaining the public and financial benefits when opponents---including fellow Commissioner Bonnie Mager--- disingenuously said the decision to buy the race track and other open space was irresponsible and a waste of taxpayers’ money. The truth is that thousands of people using SRP will generate millions of dollars for the community and the County and that developing playgrounds and ball fields will provide safe and healthy recreational opportunities for our children.

Those opposing Richard and Mielke thought they had a strong issue to unseat them this fall. But by moving aggressively to ensure the projects’ success and continuing to focus on their messages the two will eliminate SRP from the debate and demonstrate that bold government is effective government.

May 12, 2008

STA-Crime Check-Jail: Setting the Stage

The Spokane Transit Authority and Crime Check supporters are in the final stages of their---how shall I put this---really low-key sales tax campaigns. We’ll know May 20th whether STA will continue collecting a 0.6% sales tax forever or if the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office is allowed to use a tenth of a percent sales tax hike for emergency communications equipment and to reinstate Crime Check.

A May election is being held because supporters know that both measures are in trouble---a loss now means they can run them again in November. Could happen because folks don’t like permanent tax increases without guarantees that the money is really needed and will be spent wisely.

But this creates headaches for the County Commissioners who are considering whether to run what could be at least a $100 million jail bond issue in November. Here’s the problem: We won’t know where it would be built, there’s no official price tag and---probably the biggest concern---no political ground work has been laid to persuade voters that a new jail is even needed. Throw in concerns about the economy and the possibility that STA and Crime Check may resurface and you can see Commissioners’ dilemma.

And time is short: the site for a new jail won’t be known for several weeks; the issue itself may not be placed on the ballot until late summer which means only about eight weeks to mount a credible campaign. Significant tax requests can pass if energetic people are involved, the right messages are developed and voters are assured that the project is necessary. Maybe the County should take the rest of this year to develop a robust public education campaign to explain the need for a new jail and ask for voters’ approval next year. More time, a well devised and executed communications effort and full public involvement will give the idea a much better chance of approval the first time around.

May 5, 2008

County Race Track Purchase - Fair Race or Fixed?

The Spokane County Commissioners’ decision to buy Spokane Raceway Park and several surrounding parcels of land will turn out to be among the better decisions ever made by county government. It’s really a no brainer when you think about it: The county’s $4 million purchased more than 300 acres of property that will preserve auto racing in the Inland Northwest, allow the creation of publicly accessible ball fields, playgrounds, possibly another aquatic center, and give the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office a place to eventually build a brand new, state of the art training center. A million dollars will also be applied to the environmental cleanup of the track---money that won’t come from the taxpayers. All for about a half a million dollars less than the property’s appraised value.

So what’s the problem? Clearly there are still people who don’t like progress or government doing something that benefits us. But the County is losing an opportunity to effectively fully communicate how the property will be used---especially when it comes to the race track. Spokane County will own the race track but will not operate it---that will be left to the private sector.

Full disclosure: I’m helping represent Pacific Raceways, an Auburn outfit that privately owns and successfully operates a race track and is interested in operating SRP.

Every piece of criticism I’ve heard or read about the track includes the misconception that the County will run it. I’ve had conversations with a dozen people who were critical of the purchase but eventually agreed that this is a good deal when it was explained that the private sector will operate the track.

But the County itself has done little to dispel the misperceptions: nothing on its Web site, no news releases containing messages about the extremely positive aspects of the project, no demands for clarifications to media outlets that have either missed the point or neglected to include it in stories and no engagement with their critics---pretty basic PR.

Luckily the Commissioners have excellent political cover from an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and motivated racing community to help them move forward with what will be an extremely successful project. But the County won’t always be that lucky; communications efforts should start long before the event---for example, this spring’s tax increase request for communications equipment or a new jail this fall. Heard anything?