The difference in tone was striking for the 2011 Spokane Valley City Council winter retreat on Tuesday.
Last year’s 2010 “need for urgency” – in which a newly elected “Positive Change” slate of council members put the crosshairs squarely on the Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan – was replaced by a desire to set goals for improved economic development in Spokane Valley, investigate options for a new city hall, maximize police protection with limited tax dollars and maintain a healthy rainy-day fund in the city budget.
All in all, the council members – minus a hospitalized Bob McCaslin, who still has ongoing health concerns, and Rose Dempsey, who resigned last month for her own personal reasons – maintained a, well, positive mood while snacking on granola bars and sipping bottled water during the day-long roundtable session at CenterPlace that was sparsely attended by a few members of the public.
“It’s really a good feeling,” said Mayor Tom Towey after a presentation on the budget showed a surplus of over $10.5 million into 2015. “We’re in a position where we’re fairly comfortable – but we realize that things can turn around real fast. Cities that once had reserves are now scraping the bottle of the barrel.”
Council members directed staff to keep the budget at a 3-percent increase in 2011 but also has followed through on a vow at last year’s retreat to do away with SARP as quickly as possible. While that hasn’t happened in its entirety yet – that will come in April during the city’s annual overhaul of the comprehensive plan -- the council has loosened zone requirements in much of the Sprague corridor and recently did away with the city center overlay that was deemed the most restrictive for new development.
That move prompted the departure of Dempsey, who battles diabetes, and also likely had something to do with the fact that SARP was not mentioned once until 1:20 p.m. of Tuesday’s meeting as Council Member Brenda Grassel perused the city’s long-term goals.
“There are a lot of nice items in here,” Grassel said. “A lot of these goals, in my opinion, were meant to go hand in hand with SARP.”
Grassel was the one who stated in 2010 of there was a “need for urgency” in SARP’s removal and her latest comment was the catalyst for a short chicken-and-the-egg discussion of when the city goals were decided upon and whether the Sprague revitalization plan had even been in place. City Manager Mike Jackson said the city goals are always something that can be reviewed and modified in the future.
Community Development Director Kathy McClung said the city – just like other municipalities of the same size or larger -- will have to embark on a total soup-to-nuts overhaul of the comprehensive plan.
“That would be a good time to look at the goals,” she said. “You are going to have a substantial public process to do that.”
Council Member Dean Grafos – who declared at last year’s retreat that “you cannot restrict economic activity and expect to increase economic activity” – did not bite when, during a discussion on that very topic, city staff members reported that future growth would not depend on just attracting new business but preserving existing ones.
“One of the biggest (things you can do) is helping businesses you have and helping them grow,” Ken Thompson, the city’s finance director, said after telling an anecdote about how existing companies often feel threatened by overreaching efforts by cities to attract competition.
Thompson added that “most jobs are creating by expanding small businesses.” Positive Change council members, including Grafos, have long argued that the impositions of SARP – through restrictive zoning and building guidelines – would stymie growth for land owners already on Sprague.
Council members agreed to form a committee to look at some long-term solutions for economic development. They also decided to study further the possibility of future city hall, possibly near CenterPlace at Mirabeau Point. Currently the city rents space at Redwood Plaza, 11707 E. Sprague, for $450,000 a year.
“Basically the question is pay rent, go to an existing building or build a new one,” Towey said.
Constructing a suitable city hall on Spokane Valley-owned land near CenterPlace, however, would reduce the amount of already-limited park space, it was reported. Existing trails and a view of the waterfall at Mirabeau Point would be encroached upon.
“It seems to me that a commercial zone would be a wiser use of land use,” said Council Member Bill Gothmann.
In other news, Police Chief Rick Van Leuven reported that his department would not see a noticeable loss of service due the reduction of 6.5 positions due to budget constraints. Specialized investigative units would take the biggest hit, he said, but those positions are mostly being redirected to patrols on city streets.
Towey said that it’s not unusual to have to reprioritize in difficult economic times.
“Some of these goals were set in a different economy,” he said. “We just don’t know when we’re going to come out of it.”