For at least one Spokane Valley City Council member, the road to economic recovery could start as simply as giving away a gift basket.
But if the welcome-wagon is going to ever truly get rolling, the ride would sure be a lot smoother on well-preserved streets.
The subjects of stimulating business and preserving Spokane Valley roads got lots of air time Tuesday, daylong City Council retreat at CenterPlace. And while there was no one magic answer – cities everywhere continue to struggle with exactly those two problems – ideas were bandied about, notes were taken and a dry-erase board in the back of the meeting room was steadily filled with bullet points throughout the day.
The subjects of spurring economic development and street preservation took up the entire morning of the retreat and even spilled over after lunch. Other topics – such as the city’s upcoming 10th anniversary or the Parks Master Plan – were given a brief review or jettisoned from the agenda altogether.
But while street preservation – and the ongoing need to find between $10 million and $11 million a year to do the job properly – was the “headline” topic of the day, according to City Manager Mike Jackson, Council Member Chuck Hafner wanted to know how Spokane Valley welcomes new businesses.
“We’re not delivering a basket,” Jackson said, adding that in most cases city staffers have typically been working with developers for over a year before they open.
“Once they’re open, do we put something on our Web site and say, ‘Hi’?” Hafner asked. “Anything we can do would be helpful.”
Council members are generally not in favor of hiring a consultant to guide them through economic recovery – especially not one from California, it was mentioned – but rather they want to see the city taking more of a leadership role working more with groups such as the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce and Greater Spokane Inc.
“I think a lot of them are doing their own thing (regarding economic development),” said Mayor Tom Towey. “We need that leadership. In my estimation, they’re not working together.”
Council Member Brenda Grassel warned against making the process to complicated and that the city should be telling those organizations what they can do to promote Spokane Valley.
“I think that needs to start happening sooner than later,” she said. “I think we’re making this harder than it is.”
Council Member Arne Woodard said he isn’t keen on forming a “committee.”
“I think you call it a meeting,” he said. “Invite them to an economic-development discussion. I think by calling it a committee you complicate it.”
John Hohman, senior engineer of development, said that the city has made great strides in streamlining its permitting process. He is particularly proud of the way Spokane Valley now handles its sign permits.
“Most we can issue in about an hour,” he said. “It’s raising some eyebrows.”
Hohman added that city staffers understand the value of moving quickly on permits.
“We need to look at this as a tennis match of a hot potato contest,” he said. “This is something you don’t want to hold onto. This isn’t an egg that’s going to hatch.”
Jackson reported that efforts to move the permit center from an annex to the main building that the city leases space for a City Hall on Sprague have been delayed but could still be done for about $200,000. That’s something, he said, the council needs to consider if it ever intends to green-light a search for a new, permanent city-owned location.
“I’d like to at least see us start looking,” Wick said. “They’re not making any more land, and it’s not going to get any cheaper than right now.”
Woodard said there are lots of vacant buildings available on Sprague, and that a new City Hall could be part of any economic-development efforts.
“It would create synergy, a hub that then -- do I say it? -- creates our city center,” Woodard said.
The talk then segued into street preservation, which also has some not-too-surprising ties to businesses’ bottom line in Spokane Valley. When streets have to be replaced, not simply repaved, it takes much longer and the roadwork is more involved – which, when access is hampered, could harm already struggling businesses on a busy arterial like Sprague Avenue. This summer, that’s exactly what’s planned between Evergreen and Sullivan on Sprague.
“The Sprague project will have us going from six lanes to two lanes,” said Neil Kersten, public works director. “You can start to see what’s happening if you don’t preserve your streets.”
Kersten said that street preservation saves the city money in the long run because for every dollar spent in preservation costs between $4 and $10 if delayed to the point where full reconstruction is needed.
The problem is also getting worse. While the city could be paying just over $4 million a year in preservation efforts just four years ago, the streets continue to deteriorate and that figure has now risen to over $10 million annually.
“We didn’t have the money then,” Kersten said, adding the city’s still doesn’t have a reliable source of funding to tap. “It’s an ongoing need. You need an ongoing source.”
Some council members expressed frustration that some streets are chosen for work over others that may be in worse condition, but staff members said that grant opportunities are scarce and are taken when they materialize.
“It’s so difficult to do these (streets) in rank order,” Jackson said.
Mark Calhoun, city finance director, said the options for increasing funding for road maintenance involve new fees or taxes, such as a utility tax or forming a “tax benefit district” where a $20 fee could be added to car tabs without a city vote. But a TBD at the $20 level would only raise $1.2 million a year.
“But $1.2 million saves $4.8 million in reconstruction tomorrow,” he said.
Despite being advised by Jackson that taking money out of the general fund for increased road maintenance will cut funding for other city programs or services, some council members seem to be in favor of doing exactly that.
“Ten million dollars is for a cream-of-the-crop (road maintenance),” Grassel said. “It might be we settle for a good job. I think it’s not just a source of revenue (problem), there might be some savings there.”
Council Member Dean Grafos agreed with that approach.
“Rather than other revenue sources like taxes and fees, let’s look at the budget and see what we can cut,” he said.