Coming home

Nancy and John Janzen grew up in Spokane. They went to high school together, then on to Washington State University. Nancy ’89 earned a degree in education, John ’90 in electrical engineering. Following graduation, they married and, like many of their fellow Cougars, moved to Seattle.

John traveled around the country as a software consultant. Nancy concentrated on raising their two daughters, now 12 and 11, while maintaining ties to her profession. Their family had started just a little earlier than they had planned. But still, things looked good.

And then they decided to come home.

They knew that building a software company was not going to be as easy as it would be in Portland or Seattle. But their family was here. Spokane was home-and a very attractive place to live.

Their bet on Spokane paid off. Their business is booming. Maplewood Software specializes in customized databases and Web-based applications. A new spin-off company develops healthcare scheduling software.

And the Janzens, with the help of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, would like to encourage a trend.

The Janzens are ambassadors for the new Homecoming campaign established by the chamber in collaboration with the city’s Economic Development Council, Washington State, Eastern Washington, and Gonzaga universities, and Whitworth College. The goal of the campaign is simple, to draw people who grew up in the area, or who went to school there, home. Not only the people, of course, but also their talents, ideas, and businesses.

“It’s really an economic development tool,” says Nicole Stewart, who coordinates the program.

Although the program has been in place only since last February, it has already enjoyed some successes. It’s unlikely, however, that such a program could be successful were it not for the fact that the future looks very bright for Spokane, an outlook that people are just getting used to.

Knowledge as a product

Not so long ago, Spokane was stymied by one of the few easily defined realities of regional economics. The base of its economy, natural-resource extraction and processing, was shrinking. The area is always going to have agriculture and natural-resource-based industry, says Tom Reese, economic development advisor for the Spokane mayor’s office. “But it’s not going to be the driver it was.

“In the 1980s,” says Reese, “civic leaders recognized that they needed to identify some real strategic activities that were going to be catalysts” for economic development.

Higher education was one of the top three priorities.

“That really was the genesis of Riverpoint being here,” he says.

Riverpoint is the campus shared by WSU and Eastern Washington University on the south banks of the Spokane River just east of Division and downtown Spokane.

Although WSU has had an academic presence in Spokane since 1919, the development of the Riverpoint campus provided a physical and visual focus for WSU’s participation in Spokane’s renaissance. Obviously, WSU has benefited from and contributed to the rise of Spokane’s version of the so-called knowledge economy.

As oft repeated as terms such as “knowledge economy” or “information economy” are, the concept can be hard to grasp. However, in the case of the role knowledge and higher education play in Spokane’s renaissance, the various pieces fit together in a coherent and tangible picture. “It’s a real synergy,” says Reese.

The first thing to consider is the contribution of research to the healthcare industry in Spokane. Spokane has long been the center of healthcare in the Inland Northwest. WSU’s College of Nursing has fed the need for nurses, and research efforts such as the Health Research and Education Center have contributed both to healthcare capabilities and to the economy by drawing private investment, federal grants, and talented researchers. As is the case with Lisa Shaffer ’84, whose laboratory specializes in the analysis of chromosomal abnormalities, these researchers also bring with them their own companies, employees, and further economic stimulation. Shaffer and research partner Bassem Bejjani, also a geneticist, both hold clinical appointments at Sacred Heart Medical Center.

“Knowledge is about innovation,” says Reese.

Plans for the Riverpoint campus include a new building for the College of Nursing, which, along with a proposed university district, will more closely link the campus with the hospital district, which is steadily advancing north.

Designing a place to live and learn

The Interdisciplinary Design Institute at WSU Spokane has been a major player as Spokane redefines itself. One of the most forward-looking and deliberate concepts within this redefinition is the university district. The notion of a university district gained momentum about six years ago, says Reese, when the idea was presented through articles by then-WSU Spokane campus dean Bill Gray, Gonzaga University president Father Robert Spitzer, and state senator Jim West, who is now mayor of Spokane. The idea was temporarily shifted to a back burner, but then resurrected when a group of design institute students met with the East Sprague Business Association to conceive of developing the area on the south side of the railroad corridor that runs between the Riverpoint campus and Sprague Avenue, the main east-west street in Spokane. Driving the concept was the burgeoning need for student housing. WSU Spokane expects to enroll over 2,000 within the next decade. The move of over 450 nursing students to the Riverpoint campus upon the completion of their new building will jump-start this growth.

“They quickly began to realize that this idea had a lot more legs to it as an overall district,” says Reese. Click for the full text of Washington State Magazine’s interview with Tom Reese.

Presented with an opportunity, design institute students put together a proposal to present in Washington, D.C., the result of which was not only an overall concept encompassing the Gonzaga area north of the river, the Riverpoint campus, and East Sprague Avenue, but also $1 million in funding through Senator Patty Murray ’72 for transportation planning by the City of Spokane.

Long a mosaic of rail yards, industry, used car lots, and other businesses spanning a spectrum from stolid to seedy, the area encompassed by the proposed university district seems, in spite of the aptly named Division Street, a natural expansion of the revitalized downtown.

Everyone’s going downtown

“Downtown Spokane has had a very strong run since 1999,” says Mike Edwards, director of the Downtown Spokane Partnership (DSP). He cites five major building or renovation projects that have inspired the city’s renaissance: the Davenport Hotel, Riverpark Square, the Museum of Arts and Culture, the Convention Center, the Big Easy, and the WSU library and administration building now under construction at Riverpoint.

The combined effect of these projects has reestablished downtown Spokane as the core of the region, says Edwards, one project spurring the next, inspiring new business, sparking the imagination. “It’s inconceivable,” he says, with a gesture that takes in the busy shop where we’ve met, “that this coffee shop would be here without the Davenport.”

Edwards is in charge of the awards committee for the International Downtown Association’s 50th anniversary meeting this fall. One of its achievement awards will go to Jane Jacobs, the urban prophet and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Edwards smiles with satisfaction as he describes Spokane as returning to her prescription of “a natural ballet of people living over their storefronts.”

One of the measures of Edwards’s industry is the number of hours each day that people use a downtown.

“Six years ago, it was eight hours,” he says. “Now we’re a 12-hour downtown. What it’s leading to is the restoration of downtown as a viable neighborhood, where you can live, work, and play.”

Indeed, Spokane residents are moving back downtown to live.

Developer, historic preservationist, and urban planner Jim Kolva ’68 lives in a stunning art-filled loft eight blocks west of the downtown core. He and his wife sold their South Hill home and, just a year ago, their car, to make the urban plunge. “I love living downtown,” he says.

Kolva is also developing two commercial gallery spaces and a street-level apartment in the same building as his loft, a former automobile dealership.

A recent housing study by Downtown Spokane Ventures, a subsidiary of the DSP, revealed a demand for 300 living units a year for the next five years in the downtown area. “Anecdotally, a lot of people are looking for downtown loft space,” says Kolva. “There are no vacancies downtown right now.”

In the same building, Steve Thosath ’71 and Susie Luby developed the Blue Chip lofts, 11 condos, all of which were pre-sold. Matt Melcher, an interior design professor at the design institute, and his wife and business partner Juliet Sinisterra ’93, designed a number of the lofts, which range in size from 650 to 1,350 square feet.

The project became part of three classes that Melcher teaches. “A student here for more than a year,” he says, “could follow the design process, see the construction, how it was put together.”

Interestingly, says Melcher, all the loft buyers were local, a mix of young professionals, retirees, someone in the military, people looking to downsize.

Near nature

The Spokane city park system was designed by the Olmstead landscape architectural firm, sons of the great Frederick Olmstead, who envisioned New York’s Central Park and other classic landscapes. But part of the Olmsteads’ vision has not yet been realized, the Great Gorge Park. Proposed in 1908, the Great Gorge remains merely on paper. But if planners such as Mike Terrell can persist, the Olmsteads’ great vision may be fulfilled.

The Great Gorge Park encompasses the area surrounding the Spokane River, from the Monroe Street bridge downriver.

Again, students with the design institute have participated in the fulfillment of the Olmstead vision, working with the Friends of the Falls to develop concepts for the gorge area in one of their annual community design and construction charrettes. Edwards, who is also active with Friends of the Falls, credits the students’ work with helping land a $250,000 legislative appropriation for the project. He can’t say enough about the value of putting a “design face” on great ideas, from the river gorge to downtown housing, to get buy-in and build momentum for critical projects.

Whether it is ever realized or not, the Great Gorge is simply a part of the final synthesizing factor that has made possible the renaissance of Spokane-place.

What drew Nancy and John Janzen home was not job opportunity, but family and place. Increasingly, says economic developer Tom Reese, knowledge workers can locate where they want. Rather than migrate to where the jobs are, they can choose place first.

That’s what the chamber’s homecoming strategy is all about, says Reese.

“But,” he wonders, “what if they never left? What if we attracted them here as students, and they were so compelled to be here, that they were compelled to stay here as businesspeople?

“You look at cities we compete with around the world, and they all are about that, all recognizing that what sets them apart, incentives aside, tax breaks aside, availability of infrastructure aside-what sets them apart is place.”

The numbers

As nice as the place is, though, as nice as the knowledge economy sounds for both the city and universities, as nice as the 12-hour downtown feels, it takes more than attitude to drive an economy.

Don Epley, an urban economist and professor of real estate studies at WSU Spokane, conducts an ongoing analysis of the Spokane-area economy. Basically, he tries to approximate the local version of the gross national product and tracks about 20 economic indicators.

In his latest report, released in August 2004, every one of those indicators was positive.

“That’s remarkable,” he says, “because they never are that way. There’s always something negative.”

Epley explains the indicator numbers in terms of economic growth. And he is confident where the credit lies.

“We’ve got a large educational complex here and a large medical complex here, and you look at the numbers, the medical complex and educational complex are driving the economy.”

With such clearly defined economic forces and his analysis, Epley the academic is as excited as Reese, the Janzens, and other players in the economic surge.

“The future,” says Epley, “looks good.”