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Got the Big City Blues? This Mayor Thinks His Town Can Help.

Falls and the Washington Water Power building along the Spokane river in Spokane, Washington.

Falls and the Washington Water Power building along the Spokane river in Spokane, Washington. Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Mayor David Condon describes Spokane as a possible refuge for those who’ve grown weary living in the Seattle’s of the world.

Mayor David Condon, of Spokane, Washington, believes his city is well situated to attract younger professionals who may want to desert higher-priced metro regions in search of cheaper housing, shorter commutes and other lifestyle perks.

“Unfortunately, you see these large cities, they’re just getting out of reach,” Condon, a Republican, said during an interview last week at an event in Washington, D.C.

Located roughly 225 miles east of Seattle, and less than 20 miles from Idaho, Spokane is currently running a marketing campaign—which has stirred some controversy—to lure residents from Seattle, a town that has seen housing costs skyrocket amid a tech industry boom.

Condon explains that the campaign’s target audience includes 25 to 40 year-old professionals, particularly those who may have attended one of Spokane’s colleges or universities before moving on.

The city’s efforts on this front fit into a broader narrative about a renaissance of sorts occurring among mid-sized American cities.

Former Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett and his co-author Jayson White, writing in The Next American City, a book published last year, say that since 2000 more than 5.5 million Americans have left the nation’s three largest cities for smaller ones.

“In an increasingly digital and global economy, talented and ambitious people have a choice. They no longer need to move to one of a few centers of power to pursue their life's work,” an excerpt of the book says. “We need livability. Affordability. Balance in our lives.”

“Americans want to take big risks and dream about the future—but we want to succeed in places we can afford to fail,” it adds.

Spokane’s population has climbed in recent decades, to about 217,000 in 2017, from around 195,000 in 2000 and roughly 171,000 in 1980, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Other Census Bureau figures show the number of people migrating between the metro area that includes Seattle, and the one that covers Spokane, has tilted in the smaller city’s favor in recent years.

Between 2010 and 2014, population flows between the two netted the Spokane area an estimated loss of 13 residents. That’s compared to 2012 to 2016, when the Spokane region came out about 2,145 people ahead. A caveat is that the estimates have wide margins of error.

The marketing campaign Spokane launched is branded “#HackingWashington.” It cost nearly a half a million dollars, the Inlander reported last fall. Coverage by the weekly paper and other news outlets chronicled some of the blowback the effort has encountered, at least in part because of the name.

One city councilor said she found the campaign offensive and disrespectful in its portrayal of Spokane. Other people found it confusing, or suggested it could be mistaken for social media references to cyber-meddling by Russia. There was also some snark about “hacking,” as in coughing, due to poor air quality from wildfires.

Controversies aside, the thrust of the campaign is that Spokane is a place where people can still live a classic Washington “way of life,” reclaiming the promise of place known as “a beacon of livability. Relatively untamed and reasonably uncrowded,” with abundant access to the outdoors, all the while avoiding the crushing real estate prices and traffic jams Seattleites endure.

“You used to think you could have it all in Washington. We still do,” the #HackingWashington website declares.

Condon says a staffer he hired moved from the Seattle area and saw her commute time drop to around 10 minutes from about 45 minutes.

The median home value in Seattle was around $725,700 at the end of last year, according to the real estate website Zillow. In Spokane it was $203,900.

But it’s not just how long it takes to get to work, or the prospect of affordable homeownership, that the mayor sees as selling points for his city. “People want to be engaged,” he said.

“In my community,” Condon continued, “if you were 30 and wanted to serve on the symphony board, you’d be on it tomorrow.” It’s true for the park board as well, he adds.

Meanwhile, he said, companies located in Seattle could have employees in Spokane without having to comply with a different set of state employment and tax regulations.

Condon cites conversations he’s had with business leaders in fields like tech and insurance, to make a point that employers aren’t as concerned as they once were about where their workers are stationed.

“They don’t care whether you live in Seattle or Spokane,” he said of one firm.

The city’s top employers in 2017 included Fairchild Air Force Base, Providence Health Care, and the state of Washington, according to Spokane's most recent financial report. But the report adds that medium-sized employers, in fields like advanced manufacturing, health services, finance and insurance, have helped to drive the city’s economic recovery since the Great Recession.

In the backdrop of the city’s work to recruit young professionals and desirable companies are investments it has made in recent years in infrastructure—like $64 million of borrowing to redevelop a park at a former World's Fair site, and a massive wastewater project.

“We’re just finishing up. It’s a $350 million project,” Condon said. “We’re moving about 50 million gallons of sewage out of our river."

"Spokane’s on a gorgeous river," he boasted.

After two terms, Condon can’t run again for reelection in 2019 due to term limits. He said he has no immediate plans to seek another elected post and intends to stick around Spokane with his family.

“I do want to stay,” he said, noting that he’s lived previously in bigger cities, including Boston and Honolulu.

“I didn’t become mayor to leave," he added.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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