Spokane Journal of Business

It’s the economy, stupid

Citizens group urges county to consider business goals in new comprehensive plan

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As Spokane County and municipalities here develop new comprehensive land-use plans to comply with state-mandated growth management, a new topic will be looked at along with the usual issues of land use, transportation, and public services.

Its economic development.

A citizens committee has completed a report on the economic-development goals and policies it believes should be included in the countys comprehensive plan, which will guide development in the countys unincorporated areas. The report reads more like a statement of goals from the private-sector economic-development groups Momentum or Focus 21 than a governmental planning document.

The thing were trying to do is create flexibility, says committee member Frank Tombari, chairman of the Spokane Area Economic Development Council. In effect, what were saying is, Its OK to be creative.

The report says the county should pursue public-private partnerships, develop strategies to raise income levels, assist with business-recruitment programs, and strive to achieve employment-growth goals.

It adds that incentives such as density bonuses, increases in floor-to-area ratios, and tax deferrals should be available for projects that add jobs or boost income levels, contribute to improving the environment, or make certain contributions to the community.

The report recommends establishing a fast-track or streamlined permit process for industries that want to build a campus-like business park facility. It urges the county to encourage a more favorable tax environment, which enables the use of tax-increment financing, port districts, free-trade zones, the expanded use of industrial revenue bonds, tax credits, and other financing mechanisms.

The report also suggests somewhat of an attitude shift. It seeks to create more opportunity for planners to work with developers on projects, proposes improving the zoning code so its more understandable and up-to-date, and encourages allowing for innovative project design through incentives.

Tombari says two objectives are at the heart of the report: We all want a nice place to live, and we all want a family-wage job. With those desires in mind, the committee, looked at topics including business retention, expansion, and recruitment; tourism; the environment; natural resources; promoting a business-friendly climate; and the availability of industrial and commercial land.

Were hoping (the county) will use this as a guiding principle in its comprehensive plan, Tombari says. The economic-development planning element isnt required by the state, but the county and the cities within it all agreed to include economic development in their comprehensive plans.

Dan Kirschner, public affairs director at the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce, says the new economic-development section confirms that local government has a choice: Do we encourage or discourage business growth? Its not about growth occurring regardless of the restrictions placed on business.

The report recommends more of a carrot approach to get developers and others to do projects that are beneficial to Spokane, he says. Such methods are used to a limited degree here now. For example, developers of planned-unit developments that set aside a certain amount of land for open space receive density bonuses, or the ability to put more residential units in a given amount of space.

Making certain behaviors pay off makes them more likely to happen, Kirschner says.

Of course, the county has a lot of work to do before it approves a new comprehensive plan, and its difficult to say how much of the committees report will be incorporated into the plan.

Group member Pete Thompson, a sales associate at Hawkins Edwards Inc., of Spokane, says the report has to be kept in perspective.

The ideas included in the report are admirable, but he questions how they can be implemented and whether some of the ideas should even be a function of government. I have real mixed emotions about it, Thompson says.

John Mercer, assistant deputy director for the countys division of long-range planning, says he expects county planners to rely heavily on the report as they write the first draft of the countys new comprehensive plan.

Just having an economic-development section is a major change, but the county cant merely pay attention to aesthetics and land-use issues. The economythats the engine that drives this community, he says.

The countys planning commission is expected to complete a draft of the new comprehensive plan by this spring. The public then will be able to comment on the plan, and the commission will refine it before presenting it to county commissioners in the fall. The commissioners likely will hold public hearings before taking final action on the plan, which is expected by the end of 1998.

  • Marlene Mehlhaff

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