Spokane Journal of Business

Small urban planning firm lands jobs both near and far

Studio Cascade looking to enter more markets; had highest income in '11

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Small urban planning firm lands jobs both near and far
-—Staff photo by Chey Scott
Bill Grimes says Studio Cascade has handled projects for entities as far away as the United Kingdom in recent years. Still, about 20 percent of its work is close to home.

Community planner Bill Grimes often becomes so deeply immersed in the cities and towns he does work for that he feels a personal urge to move to some of those places.

"It's amazing how much you learn about a community, and you make lasting friendships with the people who live there," says Grimes, president of Spokane-based Studio Cascade Inc. "That is a part of this work that I truly value."

Despite that emotional connection Grimes establishes with the communities he works for, he says the nearly 20-year-old community planning and design firm—it's been in Spokane for more than 15 of those years—won't be relocating any time soon. His goal, he says, is for the firm to do more work in Eastern Washington, as well as continuing to broaden its reach across the U.S.

Studio Cascade is located in a 2,300-square-foot second-floor space of a reclaimed warehouse, at 117 W. Pacific, and employs five people, including two planners in addition to Grimes—Rick Hastings and Chaz Bates. The company offers a range of services focused on community planning. Those services include creation of municipal comprehensive and strategic plans, establishing urban development regulations, and designing urban spaces.

"When people talk about planning, they think about zoning, and that is a final result of what planning envisions," Grimes says. "What we do is help communities figure out a way forward by concentrating on a path to take them from where they are to where they want to be."

Studio Cascade's revenue in 2011 was the highest it's ever been due to several sizable and ongoing projects. Grimes declines to disclose the firm's annual revenue, but says it has increased year over year for the last several years.

Predicting an outcome for 2012 is difficult, though, because Studio Cascade's work is based mostly on contracts, Grimes says, and because in the current economy it's competing more with larger design firms in cities such as Seattle and Portland, Ore., for those jobs.

Grimes says about 80 percent of Studio Cascade's projects are for cities and towns outside of the Spokane area. Most of that outside work involves communities in Western Washington, he says, adding that he expects that trend to continue because the market for urban planning in Eastern Washington is slim.

"I do want to expand the reach of the practice and to strengthen the Spokane presence; we want to do as much work locally as we can," he says.

Studio Cascade has worked on past projects locally for Spokane County; the cities of Spokane, Millwood, Airway Heights, and Medical Lake; and the town of Rockford. It also has done work for the Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, and Colville tribes.

Also in Eastern Washington, Studio Cascade is the master planner for 49 Degrees North Mountain Resort, he says, and is working with the resort on the next stage of an envisioned expansion that would include the development of 300 acres of private land.

Studio Cascade's team of senior planners also is involved currently with a sizable and ongoing project to redesign and integrate the mostly industrial waterfront area of Port Angeles, Wash., into the city's nearby downtown.

"The city had been struggling with how to tie their commercial waterfront into the downtown for decades, and now they have a way to pull it off," Grimes says.

Studio Cascade landed the role of lead consultant for that job in 2010, he says, and the firm will continue its involvement in the project throughout the upcoming construction of the new waterfront design.

Last fall, the Washington chapter of the American Planning Association and the Planning Association of Washington presented Studio Cascade with an outstanding achievement award for its work on that project.

The receipt of that award is notable for a firm the size of Studio Cascade, Grimes says, because of the regular competition it faces for jobs from much larger competitors.

Grimes says community planning can at times be both an abstract and complex process. Because of that, he says, the firm's planners make sure to consult extensively with not only the community's leaders but also its residents throughout the planning process.

"We first work with the client or the community to define a vision," he says. "It's also about trying to figure out realistic expectations and charting a course to get them there and using what tactics are available to help them get there. We always solicit the public voice; that is a special skill of ours."

Grimes says most of Studio Cascade's projects fall into the categories of urban design or comprehensive planning.

Comprehensive plans usually are long-range guiding documents that outline a municipality's goals for the future and address things such as projected population growth, transportation, land use, and economic development, among others.

Studio Cascade recently finished work on a 20-year comprehensive plan update for the city of Sultan, Wash., located about 40 miles northeast of Seattle at the foothills of the north Cascade Mountains.

In the Inland Northwest, the planning firm has completed comprehensive plans for the cities of Sandpoint, Cheney, and Chewelah, among others, Grimes says.

Comprehensive planning was Studio Cascade's main focus when it was founded in the early 1990s, he says, because of the then recently enacted Washington state Growth Management Act, which requires cities to have such planning documents in place to address future growth and development needs.

Grimes says comprehensive planning work remained Studio Cascade's main line of work until the economic downturn set in during 2007 and 2008.

"Over the last five years, things have changed," he says. "Housing was off, and virtually all that we do relies on development, so we had to change our course a bit."

Another factor was the shrinking budgets of many local governments that had been used to fund planning and development ventures, he says. State grant-funded development projects also became few and far between, Grimes adds.

"So what we did is we went national," he says. "We took a hard look at what it is that we do best, and we marketed it at a national level."

That effort since has brought Studio Cascade jobs as far as North Carolina, Arkansas, and even the United Kingdom, he says. One of those international jobs was to create a conflict-remediation guide related to urban development for the British government's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Grimes says.

Aside from branching out geographically, Grimes says within the last five or so years the firm also became more involved in other areas of planning, such as urban design, neighborhood plans, and creating development regulations, for both public- and private-sector entities.

Apart from changes in the urban planning and design industry caused by the sluggish economy, Grimes says another big challenge firms like Studio Cascade face is helping municipalities effectively deal with urban sprawl and in turn managing urban resources.

"We have to begin recognizing that land is a scarce resource and we can't always look to the perimeter for new development opportunities. We have to figure out how to reuse where we've already been," he says. "Our biggest challenge as planners is to help local agencies mange that land resource more effectively."

A project Studio Cascade completed in 2004 for the city of Bellingham, Wash., addressed this issue and how that city could accommodate a projected 40 percent increase in population without expanding its city boundaries.

Grimes says his hope is that Studio Cascade continues to build on the success of its earlier and recent projects both in Washington state, across the U.S., and overseas.

"We have learned that we can be very effective across the country; we have an important message to deliver in helping communities have a voice in their futures and we want to spread that," he says.

With those goals in mind, Grimes says he'd like to see Studio Cascade remain on the small side in terms of the number of employees it has.

"It's fundamental to create caring relationships with the communities we work with," he says.

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