Washington State Magazine talks with Tom Reese, the economic development officer in the Spokane mayor’s office, about the knowledge economy, the role of higher education in economic development, and the planned university district surrounding Washington State University’s Spokane campus. Reese is an adjunct faculty member in the Interdisciplinary Design Institute at WSU Spokane.

Tom Reese: Spokane is redefining itself. I think it’s really interesting that the world’s fair focused on Spokane and the environment. Spokane at that time [1974] was in the throes of being a resource-based economy, timber, and manufacturing and processing of those resources, and how to do it [correctly] was really the focus of Expo 74.

What’s interesting about these new ideas and the University District is they’re transitioning the community and region out of the resource-based economy, because we have to. We simply have no choice. They’re depleted, they’ve run their course. One of the things, the economic engines, the catalysts that we have at our disposal now to move our economy forward is higher education, and WSU is embedded at the epicenter of that effort.

Cities around the world are recognizing that higher education and the universities are the hotbeds for the new economy, the knowledge-based economy, that workers can locate anywhere they want. For companies to be successful as startups, they have to chase that knowledge, they have to chase those workers, whereas before the workers were chasing industry.

Wherever you have collective higher education-in Spokane’s case you have three world-class universities on the banks of a beautiful river adjacent to downtown-you’ve got a collective mix that’s just unbelievable. That’s really the basis of the University District.

That’s my elevator speech. [laughter] Somebody write that down.

WSM: I’ve got it on tape.

TR: Even as far back as the ’80s, the Spokane community recognized that higher education had a role to play in how healthy an economy and how healthy a community it was going to be. In the ’80s, civic leaders got together and recognized that they needed to identify some real strategic activities that were going to be catalysts to transition into a new kind of economic environment.

Higher education came out as one of the top three priorities. That really was the genesis of Riverpoint being located here and working with Burlington Northern to purchase the property and to begin to locate a branch campus in Spokane.

Those civic leaders recognized even then that in order to be a world-class city, Spokane was going to need research and development, higher education was going to have to take it to the next level in order for us to be successful. So the idea of a university district has been around since that time, but it’s been lying dormant for a number of years.

It really got a lot of steam, six years ago or so, when The Journal of Business ran a couple of articles on what it would take to take that vision of a university district based around the Riverpoint Campus to the next level.

Bill Gray, the campus dean, wrote an article in The Journal of Business with Father Spitzer [president] of Gonzaga. That was followed up by a similar article by then-[state]senator Jim West, who’s now our mayor, all three extolling the virtue of creating a university district around the Riverpoint Campus and what that would mean to Spokane’s economy.

Again, it sort of went on the back burner.

But then a group of WSU students out of the design institute met with some folks from the East Sprague Business Association and started to talk with them. At the time it was really just about the streetscape on the south side of the tracks. But they quickly began to realize that this idea had a lot more legs to it as an overall district. What would happen if we connected the Riverpoint Campus with the area on the other side of the railroad tracks?

What would that do to facilitate the burgeoning need for student housing?

Gonzaga’s not building any more student housing. It’s not part of the Riverpoint campus master plan to do student housing. Yet a thumbnail sketch of student projections looks at about 15,000 perhaps overall population among the three universities. Where would they go?

So the students wonderfully articulated that, what that might look like, with a pedestrian bridge over the railroads, how that would tie the east Sprague area in, where student housing could go, into the Riverpoint campus and then a link north to Gonzaga.
That really was the initial tipping point for the idea.

What that did was help people articulate what they had always envisioned, but then put some graphic form to it. We took that work in a very short period of time, took it back to D.C., literally on a weekend.

More students put a proposal together for improvements to Trent Avenue for Senator [Patty] Murray. She’s been remarkably supportive of the overall effort, giving us a million dollars to do the Trent Avenue improvements. That was based on the student work.

The students have done a wonderful job in continuing to articulate the possibilities along Division Street, what Gateway improvements we could have coming into town and also this idea of a university district.

We wouldn’t be where we are now without the WSU Interdisciplinary Design Institute. I’m not saying that just because I teach here.

It’s just reality from an economic developer’s standpoint. It demonstrates the tremendous value the institute and WSU have in the community and region and particularly in my economic development efforts for the city.

Again, going back to the idea of transitioning from a resource based economy to a knowledge based economy, workers can go wherever they want, students can choose wherever they want to go to school. So it’s becoming a more compelling case to set your institution or your city apart from all the others they have to choose from. The idea of a place is really what is going to set you apart.

The quality of place is really what is going to make or break a community or a college or a neighborhood. Projects like Mike’s [Terrel] project, Great Gorge Park, are really about making this a great city. That’s how it fits in with the economic development aspect.

If we can produce a compelling place where students want to come, where researchers want to be, faculty want to come, it grows the university. That churns out new ideas and new products and that new knowledge resource that companies want to pursue and want to locate to.

So it’s a real synergy. Higher education has a huge role to play, and WSU has demonstrated that.

WSM: There’s a nice irony to that, to return to the idea of place.

TR: Yes, the Chamber’s homecoming strategy is all about that.

But what if they never left? What if we attracted them here as students, and they were so compelled to be here as students that they were compelled to stay here as businessmen?

As a design person, as an architect, this idea of place-making has always been the core ethos of mine. It’s fascinating to see how that ties into an embedded philosophy of economic development.

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 aside, is place. Is it a great place to be? Is it a great place to live and have your family live?

The university district really embodies all that. It brings all those different things into play.

< strong>WSM: This synergistic relationship is really interesting. Is this unique?

TR: There are different components to it. There are great models everywhere of university towns or university districts. Madison, Wisconsin; San Diego; L.A.; Indianapolis. Denver , Colorado is taking the same approach.

The idea of using universities as engines for economic development is not a new idea at all. What sets Spokane apart is that it has a major university embedded, not only as the catalyst, but as the gas, keeping the engine going, because of the design institute.

I think that’s unique. You’ve got not only the higher education to generate new ways of thinking, you’ve got the design institute, health sciences, SIRTI, all the things that Eastern Washington University brings to the table as well. Not only is it an engine, it’s the fuel that keeps it going. There’s the technical component to help articulate the idea, to keep the synergy alive.

WSM: There seems to be a real deliberateness at work.

TR: We are being very deliberate in how we approach this. What we’re being deliberate about is bringing all those disparate projects together, all of those different component ideas of what a university district should be and going through a strategic master planning process, that brings it all into place, focused around Riverspoint and WSU and higher education and collectively then going after the different projects rather than competitively.

WSM: The thing about the knowledge-based economy, it’s fairly intangible, hard for people to grasp. But when you put all these things together, people at least get a feeling for it.

TR: It is hard to grasp, until you put it in the context of what used to be the drivers for the economy. At every level of our demographics, people can look around and see that things have changed in the last 30 years. Kaiser shutting down, the resource extraction and processing industries going away.

So even if you’re not in higher education or don’t understand economic development, you know that there’s something going on around you that has to be the driver.

There’s always going to be an agricultural and natural resource aspect to our economy, but it’s not the driver that it was in decades past.

WSM: The ag component is changing, too.

TR: That’s what brings the idea of the knowledge-based economy down to something really digestible for people. Knowledge is about innovation. New ways to grow and harvest wheat. That’s where WSU plays a huge role.

That kind of innovation across the board comes from knowledge being transferred and applied. Innovation doesn’t necessarily have to be the next computer chip or software or computer platform. Innovation happens across the board, whether farming innovation or automobile technology.

WSM: Back to the university district.

TR: We haven’t even talked about the planning process, the physical form we’re envisioning. We briefly glossed over idea of student housing and what that might mean. What kind of environment does that generate, kind of a funky cool gaslight district 24/7, mixed-use housing, pedestrian-oriented, great clubs and places to go salsa dancing-all of those things embodied in that vision.

No matter where you slice it, there’s a piece that people throughout the community can buy into. We’ve done dozens of presentations. Aside from concerns about traffic or parking, there’s not been a negative comment at all.

Even the neighborhoods are seeing that their neighborhood and quality of life can be assured down the road. There’s talk of devleloping the gorge project up into the university district.

What does that mean in terms of environmental statement?

Utilizing a formerly industrial site for campus means utilizing a formerly industrial river. How do you claim those industrial sites?

These are cutting edge things for the design institute to look at.

And it’s right here.