Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Saturday, August 18, 2007

"Moscow mayor shares her vision for city, growth; Some aren't sure city is headed in right direction"

There was an interesting article in today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News on Queen Nancy's rapidly disintegrating reign. There are several conclusions that can be drawn from this story:

1. Arguments about "big box homogeneity" suffer from the logical fallacy of the False Dilemma. Big boxes and quality of life are not mutually exclusive. You CAN have a thriving downtown AND large retail stores. Boone, NC, another small university that was the subject of the movie "Why Wal-Mart Works and Why That Makes Some People C-R-A-Z-Y" is a perfect example. Boone has small eclectic shops downtown and a Wal-Mart.

2. Our efforts to promote Pullman as business-friendly have been wildly successful. PARD is ignored by all and now relegated to irrelevance.

3. A region that is 75 miles from both a major city and an interstate highway and that is almost entirely dependent upon the whims of government funding and a declining agricultural economy for its livelihood is never going to experience "uncontrolled growth." I quote from a Lewistown Tribune article earlier this year, "Latah County has actually lost population. It's the same story across the border where Pullman's population has grown a bit more than Moscow's, but Whitman County has lost even more residents than Latah County."

"Uncontrolled growth" is a ghost story liberals tell each other around the campfire; the Bogeyman that the leftists use to make us behave.

4. Citizens' attitudes about growth ARE reflected at the ballot box.

Pullman, which is embracing big box stores will only have one contested race out of four city council seats and the office of mayor. No anti-big box candidates are running.

Moscow, which has taken a hard line against big box stores, also has four council seats open and it won't surprise me if every single race is contested. Three of the seats belong to the "Gang of Three" councilmen that voted against the Thompson rezone for Wal-Mart. The fourth is liberal Linda Pall. With the balance of power and the future of Moscow business at stake, it's going to be a gut-busting, nasty, expensive election the likes of which we have never seen.

Based on that, you tell me how Palouse voters feel about growth.

5. EVERY town is "unique" or "special" in some way, which has the effect of making all towns the same in that regard. The real differences between towns to businesses are in the demographics of income and spending power. And let's face it, the Palouse ain't that great in that department. Like Jerry advised his Uncle Leo, we had better hold on to any suitors we get like grim death. The Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny will set up shop here before all these mythical green, eco-friendly, living wage paying, high-tech businesses Chaney keeps fantasizing about.

6. Big boxes and national chain stores ARE inevitable because that is what people vote for with their wallets and their feet. We don't live in a vacuum. If Pullman and Moscow don't get them, people will just go elsewhere with their tax dollars and we will be faced with much worse problems than "homogeneity." For example, what did we just read about Old Navy:
Bailey said she made a trip to Spokane to go to Old Navy last weekend.

It will be nice to have Old Navy closer by, she said.
We must accept the inevitable and plan accordingly.
Mayor Nancy Chaney says Moscow isn't anti-growth or anti-business, and it's time for people to stop saying it is.

"That perception, that myth, is injurious to all of us and it has unwittingly been perpetuated," she said. "Let's quit saying it. Let's be optimistic."

At an economic development summit in July, Chaney said Moscow "can afford to be selective" about growth.

Being selective doesn't mean being against growth, she insisted. Chaney said like most people, she is eager to see continued economic growth and diversity in Moscow.

Selective growth means knowing what type of growth is right for Moscow and encouraging it, she said.

"My perception is there are some members of the business community who are fearful of the prospect of change," Chaney said. "People will sometimes say, 'Oh, yikes, that's anti-business,' when it's not, it's just different."

There are qualities of life that Moscow residents want, she said. People want to be close to amenities. They want recreational opportunities like the bike trails. Retirees moving into town want access to restaurants, shopping and health care. Baby boomers are looking for "energy-efficient, affordable spaces."

"Businesses that are supportive of those qualities of life will be the ones that pay attention to what Moscow has to offer," Chaney said.

She said Moscow's strength lies in being different from other cities.

"I think changing the complexion of Moscow so that the focus is on the automobile, the strip development with shoulder-to-shoulder big-boxes" would encourage homogeneity in the community, she said.

She said the city has exercised its ability to be selective through actions like the large retail establishment ordinance, better known as the big-box ordinance. The ordinance provides a design manual for stores between 40,000 and 64,000 square feet, as well as other requirements.

Chaney said Moscow has had success with growth that fits the "selective" bill.

She cited Alturas Technology Park Phase II expansion and the Anderson Group's coming development of the grain elevators at Sixth and Jackson streets as examples.

The Anderson Group project combines entrepreneurship and creativity, she said. The planned adaptive reuse of the elevators fits the "artsy, quirky edge that Moscow has."

Chaney said the city also is working to promote cultural tourism with events like the Moscow Motorcycle Classic and Life on Wheels. These events bring people into town, show them what Moscow has to offer and make them want to bring their businesses here.

Not everybody shares her visions for the city, however.

Another perspective

Shelley Bennett, a Moscow Realtor and developer who manages the Eastside Marketplace and Alturas Technology Park, said the mayor's statement that Moscow can be selective isn't realistic or right for the city.

"I don't think she knows what she's talking about," Bennett said. "I don't think she's looked at the facts of that statement, and that is a bold and arrogant statement."

The resistance against big-box stores is damaging to Latah County's less fortunate, some of whom have to shop at discount stores, Bennett said.

Bennett said if Moscow wants retail growth, it needs to consider allowing a Wal-Mart Supercenter to be built. Other discount retail stores like Target often won't build in a community that doesn't have a super Wal-Mart.

In 2006, Bennett represented the Gene Thompson family, which tried to have a 77-acre parcel of land on South Mountain View Road rezoned for retail commercial development, including a Wal-Mart Supercenter. The City Council rejected the rezone.

"It was not allowed to be rezoned because it was Wal-Mart. The zoning was all about Wal-Mart," Bennett said.

Chaney argues otherwise.

Wal-Mart "may have been knocking at our door, but the question was about the zoning of that property," not specific applicants, she said.

Chaney said it's also a myth that Moscow drove the 700,000-square-foot Hawkins Companies development to Whitman County.

"Those folks said they could not find a piece of ground that suited their needs. If they looked, they didn't ask," she said. "There was no, 'We want to settle in Moscow but you're not friendly to our business.' "

Bennett said Moscow could have cashed in on the Hawkins development by selling water and sewer to it. The money "could have gone straight into the city coffers" and helped pay for projects like connecting sidewalks and improving streets.

She said she once saw Moscow as a unique place that could attract unique businesses, but recognizes now that retailers look at demographics, not individual towns. She believes Moscow needs to deal with its anti-growth image whether or not city leaders think it's true.

"They say they're not anti-growth, but they say no to everything," she said. "That's more than perception. That's reality."

Seeing both sides

Gerard Connelly, owner of Tri-State, said he agrees with Chaney's sentiment that uncontrolled growth isn't right for Moscow, but thinks the city needs to address its image.

"Fairly or unfairly, Moscow city government is perceived as no-growth or anti-business, and that perception needs to be addressed by the mayor and the City Council," he said. "Perception is reality, and if Moscow and the city government don't like the community's reputation ... then they need to do something about it."

The big problem with Moscow's economy is the shrinking market, Connelly said.

Latah County as a whole grew just .3 percent between 2000 and 2006, according to U.S. Census data. Enrollment at the University of Idaho has dropped 7.4 percent in the same period.

"That trend cannot be sustained indefinitely, and that trend is not in the best interest of anyone, whether they're conservative or liberal," Connelly said.

At the same time, Pullman and Whitman County are "welcoming big-box retailers with open arms," pulling even more business away from Moscow, he said.

Connelly said the mayor and City Council should recognize the shrinking-market problem. The city needs to "have a bias for economic growth and at the same time continue to be concerned with quality-of-life issues," he said.

The city also should be sure that building regulations are not "discouraging and burdensome" so developers feel more welcome to submit their proposals, he said.

"The most important thing is not so much that the local government do things as that they just get out of the way and allow things to be done," he said.

Moscow also should try to cooperate with UI and Washington State University as much as possible, Connelly said.

Robin Wood, president of Alturas Analytics and former president of the Latah Economic Development Council, agreed.

"I'm kind of actively working to try to bridge a gap between the university and the community," she said.

One of Wood's goals is to encourage an entrepreneurial leave program for professors so they can start businesses in Moscow. The city could benefit from companies focusing on science and technology, she said, because growth in these industries would bring a tax base to Moscow and provide high-paying jobs.

Wood is on the Idaho Science and Technology Advisory Council, which recently paid for a report on the state's strengths. The report suggested a "stretch" idea, Wood said - building a center for ecological health anchored at the University of Idaho.

Wood said she believes the mayor and city government would support such growth.

"I, for one, have not heard the council or the mayor say no to growth, ever," she said.

People need to see that the city is managing and helping with growth, not thwarting it, she said.

Wood said the arrival of big-box stores is inevitable in Moscow, so the city should plan for it. She believes big retail stores should be out of the center of town in a commercial area.

"There has to be a comprehensive plan," she said. "You start putting stuff up willy-nilly and your town just falls to pieces."

Speaking with the vote

If people are truly concerned about the state of economic development in Moscow, it will become an issue in November's City Council election, Chaney said.

"Citizens speak through their elected officials, and if there are certain things that become campaign issues, then we'll hear about it at the polls," she said.

Bennett, Connelly and Wood said growth absolutely will be an issue in the election.

Bennett, who also is president of the Greater Moscow Political Action Committee, said citizens can change Moscow's direction with their vote.

"Start by replacing City Council members that have voted against things that would be considered growth-oriented," she said.

No matter what happens on election day, Moscow's leaders are going to have to do something to resolve growth issues and perceptions, Wood said.

"There's going to have to be some sort of compromise and coming together," she said.
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