Spokane Journal of Business

West Plains schools, communities grapple with big influx

More residents, jobs lead to infrastructure needs

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West Plains school districts and municipal governments are trying to prepare for incoming developments that are expected to bring significant employment and population growth.

Toby Broemmeling, executive director of the West Plains Chamber of Commerce, says that with the new Amazon.com fulfillment center west of Spokane, at 10010 W. Geiger Blvd., scheduled to open next fall and employ about 1,500 people, and employment at Fairchild Air Force Base also set to increase, the West Plains likely will experience significant growth.

“One big issue we used to have on the West Plains was job creation, but now that issue is solved, we have new ones,” he says. “Potential solutions take time and funding, so it’s best to take a proactive approach to ensure things like infrastructure are already in place by the time they’re needed.”

Broemmeling says the West Plains community is aware that with an increasing population, creating housing will be a significant issue.

“We’re already working on ways to ease regulations and encourage housing growth,” he says. “In the meantime, we’ve begun looking at whether our schools can handle the increase in population and whether our infrastructure is ready to support further development.”

Sean Dotson is the assistant superintendent for Cheney Public Schools, a district which covers a large portion of the West Plains, including Airway Heights.

He says the district already was seeing rapid enrollment growth prior to the announcement of Amazon’s new fulfillment center and increased employment at Fairchild.

“We’ve been in a rapid enrollment pattern the last 10 years,” he says. “But this year from June to our November enrollment count, we grew by 280 students, far above what we’d anticipated.”

Dotson says the district’s voters approved a $52 million bond in 2017, which is being used to add more classrooms at almost all of its schools in an effort to increase capacity.

He says the improvements funded through the bond measure should have accommodated growth projections, but now, due to the area’s increasing population, those schools will be at capacity almost before they’ve been remodeled.

“We’re very thankful for the bond, as it’s helped create the space we need to weather the current growth, although we had hoped it might take us a bit further into the future,” Dotson says.

He says the district has added some portable classrooms at schools to increase space, but it’s already seeking property on which to build future schools.

He says the north side of the district will need at least one new elementary school soonest, as Sunset Elementary, in Airway Heights, and Snowden Elementary, just south of Interstate 90 where Holly Road meets west Hallet Road, are both growing rapidly.

“Finding suitable property in the right location may be challenging, and with West Plains property values increasing, available funding may not go as far as we’d like either,” he says. 

Dotson says the district also just recently completed an enrollment boundary campaign, in an attempt to balance enrollment with current classroom space available at each school.

“The goal is to shift students from schools that are at capacity to neighboring schools that have more capacity or are newly expanded,” he says.

Dotson says plans involve shifting students from Westwood Middle School to Cheney, and from Snowden Elementary to Windsor Elementary.

According to Dotson, the boundary revision recommendation is set to go before the school board this week, but it may take several years to be officially implemented.

“Our communities here aren’t used to this amount of rapid growth,” he says. “It’s going to be an adjustment for both the district and the families we serve.”

Dotson says one additional issue the district is considering when planning future schools is access to transportation.

“We’re going to need more buses and a larger facility to store them,” he says. “We also have many families that rely on public transportation. STA’s new West Plains Transit Center has been very helpful so far, but we’re hoping that as this area continues to grow, demand will help create opportunities for more bus routes.”

Timothy Ames is superintendent for the Medical Lake School District, which has four schools that educate students from Medical Lake and Fairchild Air Force Base.

“With the recent growth, we’ve been having more active conversations with our contacts at Fairchild,” Ames says.

He adds, “We have some capacity for new students now, but it’s hard to say how many we should expect when there aren’t any options for nearby housing,” he says. “The district does own some property north of I-90, near Medical Lake where a new school could be built if we were to need added capacity.”

In Airway Heights, city manager Albert Tripp says officials are excited about growth and are working to help nurture it with help from key partners, including area school districts, the city of Spokane, Spokane International Airport, Fairchild, the Washington state Department of Transportation, and the Kalispel Tribe of Indians.

One major upcoming project Tripp says the city of Airway Heights is focused on is the creation of a U.S. 2 alternate route.

“Currently, Highway 2 is the only east-to-west connection through the city,” he says. “This project would create a second east-to-west route, north of the current highway that would connect to the city along Sixth Avenue.”

Tripp says the city has secured $500,000 in design funds for the project and is seeking $3 million in state transportation funding so that construction could start in summer 2020.

Ryan Overton, a spokesman for the WSDOT Eastern Region, says two projects that are designed to mitigate congestion and increase freight mobility near the new Amazon facility are on schedule: improvements to the I-90 interchange at state Route 902, near Medical Lake, and improvements to the I-90 interchange near Geiger Field. 

Overton says the Medical Lake interchange project is currently in the design phase and is expected to go out for bids next month, with construction scheduled to begin early this summer.

The project is expected to be completed in the fall of 2019 or spring of 2020.

“Plans for the project include construction of a parallel bridge over I-90 and three multi-lane roundabouts,” he says.

Meanwhile, Overton says the Geiger interchange project is still planned for the 2020 construction season and is currently in the design phase.

“A traffic analysis will be completed next month, and we expect to advertise construction bids by late March 2020,” he says.

Overton says the current scope for the Geiger interchange is to revise the stop-controlled intersections to roundabouts on the north side of I-90 and make improvements to the ramp intersection on the south side.

He says both interchange improvements were funded in 2015 through the state’s Connecting Washington package, with the original project cost estimated at $26.6 million.

As the Journal reported in July, WSDOT had been asked to move up the timeline and change the scope and order of both projects, to accommodate plans for the Amazon fulfillment center.

While the area can now be expected to handle anticipated traffic flows, Overton says it’s less clear how future large developments may change things. 

 “The potential is there for more development in that area and we are looking at a plan to accommodate it,” he says. 

Todd Coleman is director of the West Plains-Airport Area Public Development Authority, which includes Spokane International Airport and some of the land surrounding it.

When it comes to future development planned in the area, Coleman says the PDA has several projects in the works that have been designed to help encourage growth, including a $44.7 million upgrade to Geiger Boulevard and its associated connections to I-90.

“We’re working with city developers to ensure that the properties along that road have water and sewer infrastructure in place for future developments to connect to,” he says.

Coleman says the total cost estimate for the project factors in the $26.6 million in funding already reserved for WSDOT’s nearby I-90 interchange projects.

He says the project has already received $14.5 million in federal grant dollars, and about $30 million has been contributed through other sources.

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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