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In Good Hands

Sunday, Jan. 14, 2001
Copyright © 2001. Reproduced with permission of The Spokesman-Review.

Guest Column by Bill Robinson - Special to Perspective

I have been asked to give my perspective on the future of Spokane. No problem. I love talking about Spokane, and I think the years ahead will see our region absolutely soar.

But I have to admit, I'm a bit weary of focusing on the future of Spokane. It's time to work. Sometimes it feels like we spend so much time gazing into the future that we neglect the present.

My crystal ball is prognostication-challenged, but I did get out of it: The future is made up of a whole bunch of "nows." And if we don't take care of the nows, it doesn't take a psychic to know that what lies ahead won't be pleasant. On the other hand, if we work hard to capture this moment, and make right now the best it can be, the forecast gets sunny.

Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, remarked: "Humility is a useful characteristic for a futurist." Nobody has ever called me a futurist, but I do offer plenty of humility about my perspective of our region's future. Actually, my view of Spokane is neither as detached nor engaged as some have claimed. I am not stationed on the north edge of town, peeking through one of the turrets notched into the pinecone curtain that insulates Whitworth College from things like ... humanity.

Nor am I intimate friends with those accused of being conspirators or counter-conspirators. But I do feel pretty objective as a private educator who has stood outside of most of the political forays, while also feeling involved enough in my Chamber of Commerce role to see our community's potential. So, here are my best guesses.

The current downturn in our national economy, particularly in areas related to technology, will bring business and jobs to Spokane. I remember an old "Father Knows Best" (words never uttered by my wife or children) episode in which Bud became a football star. Suddenly, Bud considered himself the god of all sports and had no time for little people like family, friends, and the girl next door. After Bud got hurt and his moment of fame fleeted, that virtuous girl next door looked awfully good to him.

Spokane is the city next door. When business is booming and stocks are doubling every few months, who needs Spokane? San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle are the spots where the elite meet. But when fortune heads south, it's amazing how quickly people become interested in the quality of life, reasonable prices, 15-minute commutes, affordable land, good schools and durable values. I think Spokane will become very attractive for people and companies who want to get off the roller coaster while it's down close to the ground.

The local government situation will help our region unite. Now is a good time for the strong mayor form of city government. We need to be pulled together by someone with some clout. I hear a lot about how the education leaders have coalesced in a very cooperative way and can now provide great leadership to the region. Well, we do work together and we can help, but any influence we have outside of education is largely informal.

We presidents can tweak, cheerlead and prod, but we need a leader who can put some muscle behind the efforts to get the right people at the same table. I think John Powers, sitting in the strong mayor chair, can give us the kind of civic leadership we need. Powers is in a good position to reform and unite. And while his at it, we will appreciate anything Mayer Powers can do to help with the permitting and zoning obstacles that too many businesses experience.

The return on our revitalization investments will continue to grow. Great development projects have been accomplished around this region. A few weeks ago I drove past the NorthTown Mall and over to the Valley Mall before having lunch at Mirabeau Point. After lunch I drove through downtown on my way to the airport. As I reflected on where I'd been that day, I was overwhelmed at how much has happened in the past five years. The Spokane region is extraordinarily well positioned for robust economic progress. It is just flat exciting to see so much new development.

Spokane will become stronger in every way because of its growing commitment to help the unemployed and the working poor. The practical and moral benefits of reducing poverty are too numerous to list. It is neither right nor smart to allow poverty rolls to swell.

In December we held our Chamber of Commerce board meeting at the West Central Community Center. What Don Higgins and his staff and volunteers have done is astounding.

The economic and humanistic redemption that is taking place in our troubled neighborhoods is as important to Spokane's future as our more glamorous revitalization projects. In the West Central area, crime is falling, employment is rising, and hope is being restored to valuable Spokane citizens. We still suffer from far too many people below the poverty line, but citizens and businesses are growing in their intolerance of this inhumane drag on what our community could become.

Spokane will become more regional in the way it sees itself. Spokane County and Kootenai County are much stronger working synergistically together than competitively apart. The same holds true of other counties in this region. Whether we ever become more regional in our governance remains to be seen. But increasingly, people will cross state and county lines to work, play and do business.

Spokane will not reach its potential if we fail to become a more ethnically diverse community. In my industry, math and engineering majors are disproportionately populated by people of color. Our area businesses need these people. When I try to recruit nonwhite faculty members, their fears of cultural loneliness and discrimination are palpable. We have to get behind organizations like AHANA, not because they need us, but because we need them.

I'm sure many Spokane people are tired of hearing about diversity. And if that's the case, I urge them to have conversations with the collegiate students of color who come to Spokane to study. They will be convinced that we can't give up in this battle to make the Spokane region a welcome place for all.

Spokane will not reach its potential if we allow the past problems of our leaders to be more important than the future prosperity of our children. There are some very important people in this region who have leveled harsh accusations at each other. They seem unable to forgive sins of the past. As a Christian, I believe it is my responsibility to forgive and move forward, but I also believe in forgiveness because it works.

We need our elected officials and business leaders to be problem-solvers, not accusers. In football, a good offense is a good defense; but not in strengthening a community. Defending ourselves from ourselves is wasted energy. Let's put points on the board with good jobs, schools, safety and a prosperity that leaves no one out.

The future of Spokane? It's as bright as we are willing to make it.