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?