The mayor of Spokane is looking to lure jobs from Seattle and other cities. Good luck.
No snark. I wish him well. Competition is good for everybody. Elevating the economy of Washington’s second-largest city would be good for the state, too.
More than boosterism is involved in Spokane’s effort. More even than the normal focus of local politicians on jobs (some pols here in Seattle seem to regard them, especially the well-paid ones coveted by places such as Spokane, as a curse).
Spokane needs to up its game if it wants to catch some of the better-performing metros its size. The metro area’s performance during this long expansion has been mixed at best, boosterism notwithstanding.
This old railroad-and-natural-resources capital is emblematic of the challenges facing numerous American inland metros. Yes, it’s cheaper to buy a house but most wages are lower, too. The migration from the coasts that urban scholars often advocate isn’t happening in a way that helps many “left behind” places.
Spokane’s labor force is at a record high, yes. Manufacturing employment has crept up from its Great Recession low, too. But it remains well below not only its levels of the 1990s but also the 2000s.
Overall job creation is a challenge.
In March, the most recent month with seasonally adjusted data, metro Spokane’s unemployment rate was 5.5%. That compares with 3.9% for Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue. Spokane’s rate typically runs higher than Seattle. Nationally, the rate was 3.8%.
Higher joblessness is not necessarily a problem of all midsized cities beyond the coasts. Harrisburg, Penn., and Chattanooga, Tenn., both with similar population to Spokane, clocked in at 3.3%. Elsewhere in the Intermountain West, Boise’s unemployment rate in March was 2.7%. Salt Lake City was 2.9%.
The poverty rate is high in Spokane, too, 19.4%, compared with the national average of 12.3%.
The Milken Institute’s latest Best Performing Cities report ranked Spokane 103 overall, out of 200 U.S. metropolitan areas. (Seattle-Bellevue-Everett was No. 8). Provo-Orem, Utah, with a similar population to Spokane, ranked No. 1.
Spokane’s largest employers are typical of underperforming metros — health care, tribal casino, Walmart and government, especially Fairchild Air Force Base.
Nor would it be easy for Spokane to poach prime pieces of metro Seattle’s remarkably diverse economic base.
Only about 3,000 people there work in the information sector, out of a total civilian workforce of 257,000.
Only 29.5% of adults in Spokane have a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s just below the national average of 30%. Nearly 62% of Seattle residents meet this metric of a highly educated locality.
Spokane County is very red. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump stomped Hillary Clinton by 48.1% to 39.7%.
Put all this together and it means Spokane would have a very hard time attracting prime technology talent and high-end offices of Big Tech, as well as minting startups. These typically happen in highly educated, tolerant blue regions.
Spokane is home to Gonzaga University, a well-regarded Roman Catholic institution; Whitworth University, a small Presbyterian liberal-arts college, and satellites of Washington State University and Eastern Washington University. WSU’s new Elson Floyd College of Medicine and other health-science programs are located there.
Still, a 2017 report by the Milken Institute on technology transfer by universities — a key element of growing a tech economy by commercializing research — ranked UW No. 7. Spokane’s institutions of higher education did not place among the 225 institutions examined.
For all these reasons, Spokane didn’t stand a chance of landing Amazon HQ2. It also lacks the 1 million population requirement and major airport, and is car-dependent with minimal transit.
That didn’t stop Spokane leaders from submitting a two-inch thick proposal to Amazon, joining 238 other localities competing for the prize.
Spokane has pluck and ambition, if not all the assets necessary to bring in the top layers of technology or other advanced industries, or to capitalize on the enduring “back to the city” movement craved by young talent.
All that said, Spokane has many lovely areas and some great urban bones, many the remnant of its wealthy days. Unlike many left-behind cities, it has a real downtown with architectural variety and a beautiful park — home to the Expo ’74 world’s fair — as well as luxury apartments in the former Macy’s building. Enchanting wilderness is nearby.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a study that showed Spokane among the top cities in the country with so-called opportunity jobs for people without college degrees. Newcomers from a variety of backgrounds find it a great place to live.
Seattleites weary of the city’s in-your-face liberalism might be happy to know that Spokane outlawed camping on public land.
Still, I doubt the mayor and other officials can persuade many companies in cities such as Seattle and Denver to move there, beyond relocating lower-end assets. Amazon is opening a “fulfillment center” (read large warehouse).
Spokane might have better luck recruiting assets from non-superstar cities.
It might learn some lessons from Orem-Provo. In ranking it No. 1 among best-performing metros, Milken cited “a dynamic high-tech sector, educated workforce, and business-friendly tax and regulatory climate.”
But the Utah metro is a close commute to Salt Lake City, a blue island with the University of Utah, and has established itself as a high-tech hub. Provo is connected to Salt Lake by commuter rail.
Essential to this success has been the leadership and cohesion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Provo is home to the church-owned Brigham Young University. Both the University of Utah and BYU have robust research capabilities.
So close and yet so far. Spokane’s longtime enemy, especially after the railroads cut back and mining declined, is isolation.
Spokane is 288 miles from booming Seattle, but it might as well be 2,088.