When customers travel on Interstate 90 to reach Falco’s Stove and Fireplace in Spokane Valley, Sales Manager Tyler Falco tells them to exit on Pines Road and head west.
The route may seem on the circuitous side, especially since Falco’s is less than two miles from the Argonne exit – but proprietors of the store have learned that the configuration of one-way streets along the Sprague/Appleway corridor makes the Pines turnoff the most efficient way to find the latest deal on a pellet stove.
“Before, people would get confused – they couldn’t find us,” Falco said.
The story is fairly common among retailers who have been dealing with the conversion to one-way traffic along the corridor from University to Thierman in October 2000. At Falco’s, the decrease in drop-by customers was so significant that the business abandoned its inventory of plants and shrubs in 2002.
“It was a drastic loss of business just in one year,” Falco said. “We definitely had more foot traffic before.”
These days, Falco’s thrives as more of a destination point, even if its location at 9310 E. Sprague is surrounded by sites that have not had the same success. On a crisp afternoon last week, the store was teeming with shoppers.
“People find their way here,” Falco said.
Earlier this month, voters in Spokane Valley weighed in on Proposition 1, the question of returning at least part of the corridor – between University and Dishman-Mica – to the two-way configuration. Needing a supermajority of 60 percent for approval, the initiative was resoundingly defeated by a margin of 83.5 percent. Over 20,300 voters checked their ballot against the idea while just over 4,000 voted for it.
“Hopefully this will settle the issue and we can move on,” said Spokane Valley City Council Member Dean Grafos, who was in August majority vote that placed the $2.14 million request before voters.
Council Members Gary Schimmels and Bill Gothmann – both arguing that the street reversal should be a matter decided upon by the city’s governing board – were on the losing side of the 5-2 vote.
Mike King, a Realtor who once worked at Stonemark Real Estate in the heart of the one-way thoroughfare, said the couplet issue was a “sunk ship” once the City Council decided against supporting the move back to east/west traffic.
“I’m not surprised with the way the vote went,” said King, who now works with NAI-Black in downtown Spokane. “If the council didn’t vote for it, the citizens weren’t going to. People chose getting to work faster.”
While at Stonemark, King compiled a study of vacant commercial sites along the corridor starting in 1998, right around the time Spokane County began construction on Sprague and Appleway. In the 9000 and 10000 blocks of East Sprague alone, King counted 284 years of accumulated vacancies between 1998 and 2010.
While there have been a slew of businesses say ‘bon voyage’ to the corridor over the past few years – KFC, University Appliance, China Buffet to name a few – Grafos and others point out that move-ins like WinCo Foods and NAPA Auto Parts have spruced up conditions on the avenue. In the Auto Row section of the couplet, a new Enterprise Rent-a-Car is opening soon and national car dealer AutoMax is close the wrapping up a permitting process that will bring a new branch and over 100 jobs. A new Wal-Mart is scheduled to open closer to the western border of the city in a neighborhood already occupied by Costco, Home Depot and Lowe’s.
Michael Read, a spokesman for WinCo Foods, said the discount grocer’s Valley store has thrived in its first two years on Sprague. The Boise-based business had expressed support for improvements to the corridor included in the now-scrapped SARP.
“Had things gone differently, we might be doing better, but you don’t know,” Read said. “It’s been a very strong market for us – the store is doing well.”
King acknowledged that the current City Council “is working to draw business into the Valley” but said that one-way traffic continues to be “a detriment” to commerce. King works as a listing agent for the old National Golf Superstore site – now NAPA – and noted that there is still over 11,000 square feet of office space at the location yet to be leased.
In another property down the street – 9827 E. Sprague – King has lost three tenants in the last year.
Fashion Carpets has been a fixture on the corridor for the past 38 years. Proprietor Shelly Runolfson served on a committee formed by the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce in 2007 to study the Sprague/Appleway Revitalization Plan, a blueprint for couplet zoning changes that also included reverting back to two-way traffic.
Runolfson said the SARP – which was dismantled by the “Positive Change” City Council last year – contained flaws, but at least represented “a vision” for the future.
“I joined that committee to get more information about SARP,” Runolfson said. “We went into to change the things that needed to be changed. SARP had such negative publicity, but we need to do something.”
While Runolfson acknowledged that the recession has contributed its share to the empty storefronts on Sprague, she said many businesses “are out of here once their contract ends.”
Schimmels said property owners on the corridor can do their part by “sprucing up lots and being creative.” He added that “the city has the money to help.”
“You don’t even have to spend money, just clean it up,” Schimmels said. “My advice is to be very creative, and we will be the first ones to help them.”
The latest strategy for Sprague involves a grant through the city’s public works department that would bring improvements to the corridor’s stormwater system and include landscaping upgrades. Grafos said upgrades to the couplet, which will include original signage welcoming visitors to Spokane Valley, continue to be a point of emphasis for the City Council.
“In 2012, that will be one of our priorities,” he said.