Incoherent Cluster Strategy for Spokane

M92 - Globular Cluster

Image by Astro Guy via Flickr

The photo, at right, is an astronomical globular cluster.

10 to 20 years ago, the focus was on such things as high tech manufacturing in electronics and medical instrumentation. Ten years ago, “energy” or “alternative energy” popped up. 5 to 7 years ago, the new focus was going to be an information technology cluster and wireless technology.

In 2005, the new focus would be

“…financial services, advanced manufacturing, logistics, information technology, health and biomedical, and higher education and research and development.”

Between 2005 and 2008, the plans evolved  to regional health care delivery and the “emerging bioscience cluster”. All the tech stuff  disappeared from the 2008 regional economic strategy plan. Poof! Gone! (IT is still on the list but mostly because of INHS’s excellent system integration work in health care medical records systems and start up NextIT innovative online customer support tools.)

Finally, in 2009, the Spokane County Commissioners signed off on the latest list of “clusters”. And it is not much like the others … no surprise. Amusingly, their official list of five clusters has six listed clusters. Attention to details anyone?

The Inconsistencies of Cluster Promoters

Cluster promoters tell us that tight knit industry clusters foster cooperation, communications and new synergies between people and businesses, creating new opportunities and more competitive firms. The very concept of clusters is all about geographically close communities and face to face interaction.

But then they start defining Innovation Zones and Technology Triangles by drawing ever expanding geometric shapes around Spokane to cover tens of thousands of square miles.

Which is it: clusters are tight geographic ecosystems or sprawling blobs? A cluster can not be both!

Clusters are defined in terms of their size in the local economy. Other than government and health care, and maybe transportation/warehousing/distribution, Spokane does not have industries that today rise up to the scope of true clusters. Local promoters therefore promote the lack of clusters as a benefit because we have a diversity of (too small to be) clusters.

In other words, not having clusters is a benefit?

Meanwhile, local promoters still make claims about either a tech or information technology sector in Spokane. Yet the State’s own laws mandated that the State stop supporting high tech in Spokane and several agencies that previously functioned to assist tech startups were shut down between 2005 and 2008.  (The details of the State laws and the agencies that were shut own are here.) Local promoters are inconsistent in promoting industries that by State law, will not have the state’s support behind them because they do not fall into the State selected clusters.

Local promoters push local clusters that by State law, are not going to be supported in Spokane.

Bottom Line: The cluster policy for Spokane is incoherent and inconsistent and likely causes actual harm to the economy by diverting resources away from business opportunities in Spokane.

Chart shows identified clusters (from a 2004 report) for the decade 2000 to 2010. The red circles are the segments that seemed to meet the clustering definition. At the time, it was hoped that the blue circles near the middle of the chart would emerge as clusters too. But all but Higher Education have declined since then. As the 2009 EWU report notes, IT and Bioscience clusters do not exist in Spokane.

Which Leaves Us With The Following Actual Clusters

  1. A growing government cluster.
  2. A growing higher education cluster
  3. A growing health care cluster.
  4. A growing retired population cluster bringing income from elsewhere (pensions, Social Security, investments, Medicare transfer payments)
  5. Warehousing/distribution/transportation hub (railroads/trucking/shipping) cluster
  6. Retail, hotel and restaurant services cluster
  7. Business and financial services
  8. A growing casino and gambling cluster in Airway Heights
  9. A cluster of incoherent clustering strategies and economic developments plans and strategies that no one reads!

The first three clusters are generally high paying, secure jobs. Clusters 5 through 8, plus many other service sectors, are generally much lower paying and much less secure.

If you are in technology, you need to do like the companies that used to be here – and leave Spokane too.

If you are an employer of low to moderate skilled workers, Spokane offers low wages and low housing costs (housing costs are a proxy for wages). Spokane might be for you. Here’s an official definition of who the the area is seeking:

The ideal company is one that is in manufacturing, employs from 50 to 150, and may be looking to expand or move from a place where the cost of doing business is higher.

Source: Accolades roll in for Spokane’s business climate – Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle)


With final assembly of Boeing’s 787 aircraft occurring in Everett, the Spokane region is trying to position itself as a low-cost location for final parts assembly and distribution for subcontractors.

Source: Accolades roll in for Spokane’s business climate – Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle)

Move to Spokane for low costs – which means low wages.

When talk gets down to business, the focus is on low costs – Spokane’s raw material is cheap labor. Not a highly educated, world class work force designing nano materials, network cloud computing solutions or advanced bioscience.

Besides, we have far more important things to do in Spokane than deal with a 1 in 3 high school drop out rate or chronic low wages:

But the U.S. city of Spokane, Washington has become the first to tackle climate change and global oil depletion together, marking a new step in local government responses to these increasingly urgent challenges.


3 Responses to Incoherent Cluster Strategy for Spokane

  1. Pingback: Yet another set of centrally planned clusters for Spokane! « Spokane Economic And Demographic Data

  2. Pingback: Where future jobs will be … in Spokane? « Spokane Economic And Demographic Data

  3. Pingback: How Spokane Promotes Itself « Spokane Economic And Demographic Data

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