From his office at 9300 East Sprague Avenue, Mike King can see the shuttered buildings and shabby lots that have come to characterize Spokane Valley’s main thoroughfare.
A Realtor with Stonemark Real Estate Co., King set about this spring to chronicle the legacy of commercial vacancies on Sprague since a portion of the street was changed to accommodate one-way traffic in November 2000.
Spokane County made the shift from the previous two-way format to expedite the increasing number of motorists along the east/west route.
The construction of an eastbound road from the freeway onramp near Thierman along with the transition of Sprague to a five-lane, one-way street between University and the entrance to Interstate 90 cost the county a cool $18.9 million. Traffic now moved more efficiently – but in the opinion of many retailers along the newly paved couplet, the project meant a commercially viable main street being turned into a superhighway.
“I can’t remember anyone standing up an saying ‘Hooray,’” said former Spokane Valley Mayor Rich Munson, a resident of the area since 1977.
“There was no aesthetic value to Sprague and the couplet just added to that. It became just a matter of getting from point A to point B.”
A later study by Gonzaga University showed property value on Sprague had decreased by 30 percent since the move to a one-way street. Businesses began closing. In the course of his research, King determined that half-a-dozen commercial sites were abandoned in the 9000 and 10000 blocks of East Sprague between 1999 and 2000, a period in which much of the couplet construction took place.
In October 2008, the Spokane Valley City Council voted to bring back two-way traffic on Sprague between University and Argonne. The decision – seen as a means to revitalize the corridor for both pedestrians and businesses – would await budget details, including funds for traffic light reconfiguration, restriping and new signage.
This June, King appeared before City Council with his study and an appeal that the city’s governing board “table or postpone your decision on a public ballot measure committing Sprague and Appleway to a one-way couplet concept.”
King went on to express concern that the “commuting public” would vote in favor of the one-way traffic approach at the expense of retailers along Sprague.
“I have little doubt that the residents comprehend the impact on local business, city government tax revenue lost and just who will be accountable for the lost tax income that is required to fund county and city government,” King said.
King’s report includes the history of properties like 9616 E. Sprague, Suite B that have sat vacant for over 10 years. Just down the road, a building at 9612 E. Sprague was occupied by Prudential Realty in 2007 and 2008 but has remained empty for the last two years while being up for lease between 2000 and 2006.
“I wasn’t surprised by what I saw,” said Eldonna Shaw, president and CEO of the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce. “If you drive down from University west, it seems like every week there’s another business closing.”
The chamber moved to new headquarters at 9507 East Sprague in 2003, providing Shaw with a first-hand perspective of the crumbling commercial environment. Meanwhile, pedestrian travel along the busy street proved to be perilous.
“We had to get in our car to go a block to a restaurant because you couldn’t cross the street,” Shaw said.
King, who is a member of both the chamber and SVBA, said that while the list may not be 100-percent comprehensive, it provided an illustration of the state of business along the beleaguered corridor. In all, King counted 284 years of accumulated vacancies on the 9000 and 10000 blocks of Sprague since 1998.
“It’s something tangible instead of real estate signs,” he said.
Last month, the Spokane Valley City Council decided to put off a vote on Sprague until a review of land use along the corridor can be completed this fall. There had been talk of including the issue on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Meanwhile, the current rendition of the council has begun to dismantle many components of the Sprague/Appleway Revitalization Plan, approved last year by a council with a vastly different composition. SARP supporters Munson, Diana Wilhite and Ian Robertson were defeated in last November’s general election while Dick Denenny decided against running for re-election.
Spokane Valley Mayor Tom Towey has raised the possibility of an ad-hoc committee looking at traffic reconfiguration and business revitalization on the corridor, though nothing has been finalized. Property owners like Carlos Landa have discussed the option of businesses along Sprague forming a local improvement district to pay for the shift back to a two-way street.
King expressed hope that the City Council will take the initiative to bring life back to the corridor.
“Sometimes it falls on city leaders to step up and do something for the betterment of the community,” he said.