It’s an area that brings in around 20 percent of Spokane Valley’s annual sales tax revenue and is known for names like “Gus” and “Appleway,” but for representatives of Auto Row, the key word over the past several years has been “underappreciated.”
In May 2008, Bonnie Quinn of Quinn Group Advertising and Marketing, the firm which represents Auto Row, expressed hope that the city would invest time and resources in refurbishing the thoroughfare that is home to some of the region’s largest vehicle dealerships. In describing the current state of Sprague Avenue that borders the businesses, Quinn was less than complimentary.
“The biggest problem with Sprague Avenue is that it looks like a war zone,”
Quinn said. “And the biggest threat is that we do nothing.”
Quinn talked to council members at the time about a proposal to transform the area into “a celebration of transportation,” complete with parks, themed restaurants and landscaping. The ideas were included in the Auto Row section of the Sprague/Appleway Revitalization Plan.
“From Thierman to Dishman-Mica, the goal was to develop this whole area into a destination point for people to buy cars,” said Gus Johnson, proprietor of Gus Johnson Ford at 8300 E. Sprague.
While Auto Row opposed certain aspects of the SARP such as the development of a city center in the University City neighborhood and a return to two-way traffic along the corridor, the group did support a dramatic upgrade to their immediate surroundings. Quinn described how representatives from auto dealerships met to discuss the improvements for Auto Row that were eventually included in the SARP.
“We brought these ideas up very early in the process,” she said. “We were really the catalysts.”
As a new City Council discusses the possibility of scrapping the SARP and returning to the zoning regulations in place before incorporation, Quinn said city leaders should recognize the impact vehicle sales have on the municipal budget, pointing to the correlation between declining vehicle sales and plummeting sales tax revenue.
“Just the fact that they’re down because we’re down, they should have a vested interest,” she said.
Council Member Rose Dempsey, who has spoken in favor of retaining parts of the SARP and opposes a return to county zoning, said “the city should be in support of Auto Row just like they are other businesses.”
“Sales tax is really hurting for the city right now,” Dempsey said. “If we lose businesses on Auto Row, it’s going to be in worse shape.”
Quinn pointed to the case of the George Gee dealership that was once situated on Sprague Avenue but moved to Liberty Lake several years ago.
“We’ve made a commitment to Spokane Valley, now Spokane Valley needs to make a commitment to Auto Row,” Quinn said.
Auto Row continues to be one of Spokane Valley’s largest employers as well. The Appleway Automotive Group includes around 300 associates while Gus Johnson has 80 on the payroll. Vonn Jones, general manager of Appleway, said he hope to discuss the future of Auto Row with each individual council member.
“I’d like to see where they’re at,” Jones said. “We want what’s fair and equitable, what will be best for the community.”
In December 2008, the City Council reaffirmed special designations for Auto Row, frowning on office buildings but welcoming certain types of restaurants and other commercial establishments that would tie into a transportation theme in an area known as the “Gateway Commercial Avenue.”
Talks reached an impasse last spring after Auto Row delegates grew disillusioned with the city’s direction on the SARP.
“The city’s number one priority was to build a city center and a city hall and we were opposed to that,” he said. “It was clear that they had a whole different agenda.”
Spokane Valley Mayor Tom Towey – part of the “Positive Change” transition that included Council Members Bob McCaslin, Brenda Grassel and Dean Grafos – said the city “need to look at the entire business community” when making changes to promote commerce.
“We’re going to try the best we can to evaluate what we’re doing as a city as far as helping businesses,” Towey said.
Grassel said it would be a matter of looking at the budget and working with city staff to establish direction on zoning alternatives.
“There are a lot of facets to the SARP,” Grassel said. “I’m not real clear about what (Auto Row) likes about it and what they don’t like.”
Grafos said his first priority would be “to work for regular and effective communication with all dealerships in the area.” He said he has already added a proposal for additional crosswalks along Auto Row to the city agenda and supports increased landscaping, distinctive lighting, greater setbacks and gateway signage as ways to improve the look of the area.
Johnson said he is hopeful that discussions with the City Council will lead to the dawn of a new day for Auto Row.
“We need to work together and go forward,” he said.