Many Spokane city council candidatesand those watching campaign issues unfoldsay business-related issues and job creation have become central this campaign season.
"Nationally, we have a climate where people are really concerned because the employment issue isn't being resolved, and certainly, that is a concern locally," says Rich Hadley, president and chief executive officer of Greater Spokane Incorporated. "It all comes back to job creation and economic development."
He adds, "I think the candidates will get a lot of questions about this, as they should."
Voters are starting to size up candidates and their answers to many issues, as the Aug. 16 primary election ballots get mailed out this week. Among the races up are those for Spokane mayor, city council president, three city council seats, and Spokane Valley council positions.
Several Spokane City Council candidates say employment concerns, including how the region can attract more living-wage jobs, are coming at them at a rapid-fire pace. However, some also say that creating a city-friendly environment for businesses to thrive should always be in the forefront.
Former Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession, a Spokane attorney who is running for Spokane city council president, says economic development and jobs always surface as campaign issues, although he agrees the economy is more of a factor that's bringing them to people's minds this campaign season.
"The economy is hard for everyone across the county," he says, but he adds that cities should always be proactive in the economic development arena. He alludes to the Spokane area's recent draw of the new Caterpillar Logistic Services Inc. distribution plant going in on the West Plains, which is expected to employ 100 to 150 people when it becomes operational in 2012.
Spokane's challenge, he says, is to be more consistent.
"We tend to surge and retreat," he says. "There are cities that are doing it better. We live in an amazingly beautiful city, and it is attractive. We hear the announcement of Caterpillar, and that is great, but we need 10 of those announcements. I just got back from Denver and Boise. They've got cranes in the air and we don't."
A strong road infrastructure and its regional impact also are a top business issue, says Spokane City Councilman Steve Corker, who is seeking the council president's seat. He says Spokane's economy depends on its role as a regional hub for such things as the medical industry.
He also contends that the city council's decision to proceed with an annexation of almost 10 square miles in the West Plains is the type of land-use decision that allows for more industrial and commercial development. Business successes and the tax base they support are important, he adds, especially in light of what he calls unfunded federal and state mandates on the city, such as requirements that compel the city to complete about $700 million's worth of sewer plant upgrades within five or six years.
"We need more Caterpillars and Kaisers that provide new revenue, not only do they bring higher median incomes for residents, but they also bring capital revenue into our economy," Corker says.
He says the city is under way on improvements to its business permits, licenses, and change-of-use processes. "There should be an emphasis on small business," he says. "That's who and what we are."
Ben Stuckart, who runs a nonprofit as executive director of Communities in Schools of Spokane County and is also seeking the council president's seat, says small business owners tell him the city can do more to encourage light industrial growth in targeted areasand make it less restrictive to develop small neighborhood business centers.
"Those two combined will encourage density, and those three things combined mean more city revenue without raising taxes," Stuckart says. "Business is the solution to revenue growth."
Downtown Spokane Partnership Interim President Marla Nunberg says she sees business-related issues so far as holding about the same weight as in other campaign seasons. The nonprofit group is working with GSI to plan an Aug. 9 council president candidates' forum on business issues to be held at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.
Nunberg says she thinks the city has worked to improve its small-business climate with its "Seven in Eleven" program introduced earlier this year. The program has steps that include a business permit checklist and business survival tips during road construction.
"They just opened a business help desk (in City Hall)," Nunberg says.
One council candidate running for the northwest district seat, Steve Salvatori, says he's getting hit hard with questions about jobs and the business climate here. He talks in his campaign about his business background and is owner of Spokane Entrepreneurial Center LLC, which has two Spokane buildings with low-rent options for 42 small businesses.
"Ninety percent or more of the people I talk to say the No. 1 priority is jobs and the economy," says Salvatori. "We need to make sure the city is not the obstruction." That includes speeding up the processing of permits and licenses, as well as reducing regulations other than for basic safety.
He also says the city needs to have "a culture of acceptance" toward small businesses with five or fewer employees that make up 92 percent of the business licenses issued in the city.
"Small business is the backbone of the American economy, but it is especially true in Spokane County," Salvatori says. "Let's try to reduce the unnecessary regulatory burden on small businesses."
Joy Jones, who is running in the northwest council seat race, says that although she too is hearing much about jobs, "I'm also hearing about clean water, good roads, issues about how a neighborhood wants to have a say about what (development) is going in next to them."
John Waite, owner of Merlyn's comic-book shop downtown who is seeking the city council seat representing the northeast district, says he's always thought that business issues should be a main focus.
"Finally, I think people are picking up on how important it is," Waite says. "If we don't have good jobs, we can't do anything; the city can't get a tax base to function properly. The top thing on people's minds is jobs No. 1, and the economy."
Mike Fagan, running for the city council seat representing northeast Spokane, contends that the federal government's lack of resolution for its budget and debt ceiling, among other national economic concerns, are influencing the local picture. He is a co-founder and co-owner of Tim Eyman's anti-tax group, "Voters Want More Choices."
"Businesses don't know what type of tax liability they will have or what type of regulatory barriers that might be enacted; they aren't planning out that far," Fagan says. "It means they aren't hiring."
He says, though, that cities can do more as businesses gain traction. He also calls for reducing business regulatory rules and not increasing fees and taxes. Specifically, he notes that the city nearly doubled its business license fee last year. The city's base business license fee went from $60 to $110, adopted by city council in December 2009, beginning in 2010.
Fagan says the city's issuing of business permits can also be extremely slow.
Among other business-related issues cropping up this campaign season is one that doesn't seem to go away in the Spokane Valleythe impact of the Sprague-Appleway couplet on businesses along a one-way section of Sprague Avenue. John Carroll, a candidate for Spokane Valley city council, says he supports turning a section of Spraguefrom University Road to Argonne Roadback to a two-way road.
"Dozens and dozens of cities have converted one-way streets back to two-ways," he says, "because they've found they had created business dead zones, split communities."
Current Valley council members, meanwhile, are considering placement of that issue of the one-way Sprague on the November ballot. The council must decide by Aug. 15.
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