With the economy continuing to limp along, the Spokane Valley City Council spent the bulk of a Tuesday retreat listening closely as municipal department heads laid out their proposed budgets for the coming year.
But some of the most animated talk during that time at CenterPlace, which was largely spent prioritizing goals for 2012 while continuing to keep spending in check, was spent on trying to figure out how to entice and retain business in Spokane Valley.
With marching orders to keep 2012’s numbers within 1-percent increases over this year’s, there are no plans of major cuts to programs or services. Instead, tweaks – shaving off days at the end of the season when pools are open, for example, or forgoing ornate landscaping at the west entrance to the city on Sprague Avenue near the freeway interchange – were considered.
But with only a slight bump in sales tax revenue expected for next year – from $16.1 million to $16.2 million – and property taxes holding steady at about $10,750,000, council members keyed in on trying to come up with new ways to help bring new businesses and keep established ones in the city.
“We need to get people together and brainstorm,” said Council Member Arne Woodard, saying that with the right group of local business leaders together, a whole new “mastermind” of new concepts for sparking development in the city could occur. “We need something now.”
While there have been calls for the city to develop a formal economic development plan – perhaps under the guidance of a consultant – Woodard and other council members were sour on the idea of spending too much time conducting surveys or forming committees as businesses – particularly on beleaguered Sprague Avenue – continue to close.
But even longtime businesses like Marie Callender’s at Argonne north of Interstate 90 haven’t been immune to the down economy. That decision, however, was made at the corporate level from the parent company, but local companies like Williams Seafood, which had operated north of University City for years, have optioned to leave Spokane Valley for more visible, lucrative markets in Spokane.
“Do we have anyone on staff who goes down there and asks why they’re leaving?” asked newest Council Member Chuck Hafner.
Kathy McClung, community development director, said there is no one specifically on city staff who has the job of a “troubleshooter” to try and fix problems of local businesses, but staff members do work with those looking to expand or locate business to Spokane Valley.
Council Member Dean Grafos called for city staff to develop a list of options that city the city could do now – such as tax deferments or building-fee waivers -- to entice business to this area.
“We need some guidance as to what our options are,” he said. “If we bring in a consultant, it will be another two or three years before anything is done.”
Woodard agreed, calling for an “emergency ordinance” of some type.
“We need to think outside the box,” he said.
Council Member Bill Gothmann said he was interested in holding some type of community forum to find out what the concerns of business owners and others are.
“We need to do something now, but we also need to have the pulse of the business community,” agreed Mayor Tom Towey.
City Manager Mike Jackson warned that waiving permit fees was a gift of public funds and illegal. He added that there are currently organizations like Greater Spokane Inc. and the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce that are already working to try to attract new companies to Spokane Valley.
“Those groups have a lot of staff devoted to that,” Jackson said, adding that the Marie Callender’s closure decision was made far away from Spokane Valley and that everyone is stuck in the same bad economy. “We need to be careful of the level of responsibility we accept.”
With $1.8 million available for capital improvements to the city, Grafos said new landscaping to the drainage swales on Sprague Avenue would be an aesthetic move in the right direction for beautifying the corridor.
“You can talk one-way, two-way on Sprague until the cows come home,” Grafos said, saying the look of the street was ugly. “That’s our front yard.”
The council was mostly supportive of the $630,000 upgrade to the swales from Thierman to Park roads.
City staff members reminded the council that the budget for 2012 will still go through some variations before being finalized in December. Also, the council will spend some time on some of its priorities and topics that weren’t delved into Tuesday – such as sustainable road maintenance funding – at future meetings.
“I’d like to thank staff for putting this together,” Towey said at the retreat’s conclusion. “It was very helpful.”