March 25, 2009

The City's Latest PR Problem

So let me get this straight---Spokane County is going to give the City of Spokane some $7 million for a building just to tear it down? That’s just to buy the Downtown YMCA building using Conservation Futures money. Add hundreds of thousands dollars to actually demolish the building, kick in the million bucks in non-refundable money already spent by the Spokane Parks Board and toss in another half a million dollars or so for rents and maintenance and you’ve got a heck of a bailout---not to mention a big PR problem.

The City Council originally rejected using Conservation Futures money as a bad idea. Accepting the loot now could mean that the City would have no control over the property or a clear idea of how much it will really cost to return less than an acre of property to its native state. That’s because of several conditions the County has attached:

· The Parks Board is required to pay $100,000 a year to supplement rents of the Y building until it’s torn down in five years.
· The County keeps design approval for the property which sits in the City owned Riverfront Park.
· The City would be required to pay back a portion of the grant.
· The City is on the hook for the full amount if a future County Commission changes its mind about the CF funding.

Regardless of how you feel about using CF money the bigger issue is persuading folks that this is a good use of those funds as well as a good deal for taxpayers. First step would be to spend some money to determine what people think and what messages resonate with voters. If research shows there is little or no support then politely decline the County’s offer. Otherwise, a mini-political campaign complete with public meetings, media relations and voter contact efforts would have to be created and executed to educate people about the issue.

Who would be responsible for this effort? The Spokane Parks Board should be---it’s who created the need for a bailout to begin with. Will the Parks Board step up? Doubtful when you consider that the groups’ strategic thinking about this issue is summed up in two quotes by its vice-chairman: “We have no Plan B” and “We’re on auto pilot.”

Good luck City Council.

March 23, 2009

Responding to Media Requests

I recently received an email from a friend who had been approached by a local print reporter and wanted to know how to handle the interview request. The journalist asked for details of a private business partnership that my friend was involved in that had dissolved more than six months ago. Not exactly breaking news but this was definitely a chance for my friend to tell his side of the story while relaying accurate information that could enhance his current business pursuits.

Several questions were on the table:
· Should the interview be granted?
· If so, what should be said?
· Could the journalist and the news organization be trusted to report the story fairly and accurately?

Let’s take the last one first. There is always a risk but most news organizations are professional and usually don’t set out to do a hatchet job. This local outfit has a point of view but the reporters can be trusted so the answer was yes.

The first question is the toughest. I always advise clients to promptly respond to a reporter’s call or email. It’s the polite thing to do and helps build relationships. It also gives you a chance to learn more about the story angle, what specific information is being sought, the types of questions that might be asked and the reporter’s deadline. You may not get all your answers but you’ll be ahead of where you started. One more thing to consider---but tread lightly on this one. You must determine whether granting the interview serves your purpose. The answer is generally yes for public figures and elected officials but not necessarily so for private citizens.

Once the decision to speak to the media is made there are several things to keep in mind: Create two or three key points that you want to get across. Don’t feel compelled to answer all questions a reporter asks---it’s your interview and you can control it. And be honest---saying “I don’t know” or “let me get back to you on that” is much better than giving wrong information.

And my friend? I’m anxious to see the results.

March 16, 2009

Downtown Jail Idea May Be Shifting

Spokane County may be reconsidering whether putting a jail near downtown is such a good idea.

The push to build a new Spokane County jail near the courthouse stalled last year when two big dollar issues arose: a $250 million price tag and another $8 million a year to run it. But a much larger hurdle appeared when important and influential community groups such as Downtown Spokane Partnership indicated that they would fight putting a multi-story 600 bed jail along with its ancillary issues a few blocks from the city center. Persuading 60% of the voters to approve a quarter of a billion dollar bond issue is tough enough---throw in instant opposition from politically savvy and well funded groups makes the task even more daunting.

Now it seems that the Sheriff’s Office understands that getting community support might be the first step toward building a new jail. The Sheriff’s Office told the County Commissioners during a meeting last week that architects are exploring whether a new, horizontally designed jail would be cheaper to operate than one six to ten stories high. If so, the commissioners were told, then it might be prudent to reexamine their site selection.

A jail site study says the top three locations are the county campus near downtown, acreage just off I-90 near the Medical Lake exit and property east of the Spokane Industrial Park. The County prefers the downtown location because it already owns the land and is near the courthouse which limits prisoner transportation costs.

Commissioners are not bound by their first pick but were quick to say that the site selection process will not be reopened and that a new jail will be built on one of the three sites. However, they did seem willing to re-visit their initial downtown decision if a new design shows “a substantial savings in operational costs.”

Now might be the time for the all stakeholders---City, County and the area’s business community--- to join forces to see whether a regional solution can be found.

So what’s your take? Put the jail downtown? In a less urban setting? Is a new jail even needed? It’s your tax money---you have the right to choose.

March 12, 2009

City Sees the Signs

Who says you can't fight City Hall?

A group of Downtown Spokane folks has successfully persuaded the City that recently installed Handicapped Parking signs were confusing and hurting business. Those "old" signs...only been there for three weeks or so in the newly created Entertainment Parking District...begin disappearing today. They're being replaced by ones that are much more clear.

Contrats to DSP and other groups who helped persuade the City to jump on this problem quickly. See what happens when you work together to try to find solutions?

March 9, 2009

Challenging Economy Offers Opportunity

Challenging economic times can offer people the opportunity to create things that might have otherwise been dismissed when money was more plentiful. Here’s what I’m talking about: maybe that small, innovative coffee shop that you wanted to run Downtown couldn’t get any traction because Starbuck’s seemed to be taking over the world, rents were higher and the prime locations were taken. Is that the case today? Probably not---could be that someone might cut you a great deal just to get something in their building. A friend of mine recently checked with a local commercial realtor about the availability of low cost space Downtown---he found eight different spaces that would offer no rent for at least six months!

Another example---used clothing stores in Downtown are rare---only a couple of them. There might be the chance to partner up with an established small store, move into an empty space next door, and offer a slightly different style of used clothing. The results could be that both businesses benefit. It works for restaurants, bars and car dealers---so why not for small shops, art galleries, coffee houses, wine bars and all the other things that we want to help our Downtown continue to be vibrant and alive. Why not take a chance?

Today’s Spokane is ready to help. Two friends of mine were recently forced to leave long time, well paying jobs. But instead of leaving town they’ve formed their own companies and are making a go of using their unique skills to help other businesses continue to prosper. That’s something that never would have happened in Spokane five years ago. Downtown is primed to continue this spirit of innovation. All it takes is a bit of energy, a small amount of loot and a lot of work. There are lots of people around with the skills to help you make it happen if you ask---as that small, neighborhood shoe company says, “Just Do It.”