Afterword

Falls under bridge

Image by lndhslf72 via Flickr

I have said a heck of a lot more about Spokane than I ever intended.

This project grew much bigger than I ever anticipated. Ick. All I wanted to do was find out what happened to a bunch of companies that had closed or left. I never set out nor intended to end up with a huge economic study and probably a bad one at that. Oh well.

I thought I was done last fall, then something happened and there was more to post. I thought I was done in January but the cycle repeated. Various people asked for “recommendations” – I tried to come up with something original, even though it could be off in space.

At this point, I will step back (yeah, right …) from this hobby that went on much too long.

Source

I tried to source the majority of posts and charts to reputable original data sources. There could be errors in the original data or sometimes, I had to transcribe data and could have made mistakes or mistakes in interpretation. Some contacts that provided information could have been incorrect. As I’ve said all along, if there is better data, please provide the data and the source and I will fix it and make updates. The goal has been to make this an evidence-based, data driven blog.

I could be completely wrong and it would be good for others to examine this. May be the economy here is doing really well and the official data is just wrong. Perhaps those ghost buildings are not really empty 🙂

I hope both of my readers [1] found this information interesting and potentially useful.  Either that or my last comments have alienated both of them too…

I hope others may learn from this information and translate this into useful actions for the local area. There’s lots of people smarter than me (ok, probably most everyone …) and hope they will take a look a this too.

What we really need is a group effort. May be we can start with social media like LaunchPadINW. Get a discussion going. Keep this effort alive.

Thanks for reading. Having run this blog about 5 months longer than I ever intended, I think I am through for a while.

I was going to say who I am but quite a few people have contacted me to say I should remain anonymous.

Have a nice day 🙂

[1] Readership has grown to over 1 person 2 people 10 100 wow! 200 250 people per day for a tiny blog covering the world’s most boring subject.  I have no idea why – must be a lot of bored people… That’s about 4x to 8x more than I ever thought would visit this web site and this was reached without resorting to cute kitten videos or naked celebrity photos 🙂  About 70% of visitors land here each day as the result of searching for information, usually about Spokane and topics like 4G cellular, crime, unemployment, wages, schools and so on.

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Recommendations 2: Part 4 – Plans – Let’s Aim High

Mount Spokane and surrounding peaks, as viewed...

Image via Wikipedia

Plans, plans and more plans.

Spokane has no shortage of economic plans going back decades. Please see the links in the right most column of this web page to read about past plans and summaries of what they proposed.

All of them had mostly the same findings and same recommendations.

Poverty and low wages are mentioned in all of them.

The lack of a research university is also prominent. Let’s look at that.

Former Representative Tom Foley said the lack of a research university with graduate research programs hindered Spokane’s forward progress. This idea, going back to the 1980s, led to the opening of SIRTI in the early 1990s.

The Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute (SIRTI) was created by former Speaker of the House Tom Foley, the area’s longtime congressional representative, who was convinced that the lack of a top-notch research facility was a factor holding back Spokane’s economic progress. Initial funding came through a federal grant, and it is now supported by state funds and fees paid by participating companies.

Source: 2003 Brookings Institution study and Ten Years of Innovation (SIRTI publication).

And also:

“Spokane is not at the forefront of higher education. Lack of a major research institution has consistently been called a weakness as community officials assemble a 21st-century information-based economic curriculum.”- Bert Caldwell, Spokesman-Review newspaper.

And:

Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, there was a growing hope that high technology industries could add markedly to the Spokane metro area. Some challenged the feasibility of this goal without a research university saying that Spokane could not hope to compete in the newly emerging world of high technology or biotechnology without this vital asset. Although Spokane has four 4-year universities and a thriving community college system, Spokane has been bereft of a technology transfer, research university

Source

Foley and others helped the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute – which was supposed to create spin offs from local university and government lab research into start ups and industry, and assist other start ups in creating a thriving community of science and technology start ups (some historical background).

To answer the challenge, the Washington State Legislature, with local guidance, created the Spokane Riverpoint Higher Education Park and created the Joint Center for Higher Education JCHE. The JCHE mandate was to catalyze a high tech sector, begin the effort to provide high tech worker education programs, and to be the administrative agent for the newly created Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute SIRTI. The JCHE was to spur university collaboration in teaching of computer science, biotechnology, and other technology classes; collaboration in research projects especially with industry partners; and foster high-tech worker education and training programs. SIRTI was to be operated as a research and technology-facilitating institute that would provide grants, independent research laboratory space, project management help, infrastructure, and the capability of scientists from all local colleges and universities to collaborate.

Source

SIRTI was structured with a Board dominated by academic and government labs due to the thinking that its mission was to move academic and government lab research into the private sector. Over the years, its role has morphed. Today SIRTI is an economic development agency working to help science and tech start ups state wide.

On their website intro they no longer mention the university and government lab connection:

Sirti accelerates Inland Northwest technology-based companies toward success and positive regional economic impact. We deliver entrepreneurial coaching, a mix of no- or low-cost business services, access to capital, and the legal services needed for successful formation, IP protection and long-term growth.

Yet the majority of their Board are still members of the academic and government lab communities, followed by roughly financial services … it seems its original organization structure has not kept up with its contemporary mission. Unfortunately, its Board is specified by State law – as if they poured concrete into the org chart …

Update: There is a bill pending before the legislature that would merge SIRTI and the Seattle-based Washington Technology Center and …. reconstitute the Board so that it was no longer dominated by academic and government agencies. The bill is here.

In addition to assisting start ups, which SIRTI certainly does, SIRTI has, over the years, been seen as a substitute for the lack of local network clusters in science and technology. This is plagiarized from my previous post on this topic:

The Ecosystem Problem

With the loss of the regions early tech and tech manufacturing sector, the area lost its ecosystem and peer networks that in other high innovation locales help to create a culture of risk taking and rule breaking:

“To be blunt, the startup networks that exist in the Inland Northwest are a far cry from the ‘dense network of relationships’ that exist in places like Silicon Valley.”

The Innovation Economy author saw incubators, like SIRTI,  trying to substitute for the “dense networks” that exist in innovation ecosystems by providing “access to mentors, peers, enablers, resources, education and information”. But … there is always a but … at the cost of requiring “exclusivity, requiring an extremely high level of success prior to providing assistance, and requiring the use of in-house services”.

SIRTI was going to help move academic research into the private sector, substitute for the lack of graduate research programs in the area and substitute for the lack of network clusters. But this missed a real world path from lab to industry – the path runs through the students, not a state agency incubator:

The best technology transfer program comes from the students themselves, not from government agencies set up to create university technology transfer (SIRTI).  We need undergraduates and graduate students who pursue their own entrepreneurial instincts to turn great ideas into even better ideas. The real world path from lab to start up goes through  undergraduate and especially graduate research students working in research labs, who license or take ideas from the labs in to their own start ups.

This may explain why we do not have the rich ecosystem of science and technology start ups that were originally envisioned. We’ve got SIRTI. But we do not have the graduate research students who are a critical path to migrate great ideas into profit making ventures. We also lack the graduate education opportunities that attract ambitious students to the area – most all of these students must go elsewhere to get the education they seek and then probably go to work some place else too.

In other words, perhaps the model is broken. It sort of worked but looking at the local economic numbers and the local ecosystem, it did not achieve the orbit that was originally planned. Total jobs here are now down by 10% over the past decade.

Please do not conclude that SIRTI is not working. That is not the message. The message is that a lot more might have happened if we had the rest of the ecosystem.

I previously documented on this web site, that we have close to zero graduate degrees in science, technology and engineering available in this area. Follow the links to learn more.  More information here.  And enrollment in undergraduate technology fields has fallen by 2/3ds.

(GSI says “With its strong base of research and academic resources, Spokane is concentrated on becoming a burgeoning center for information technology and telecommunications.” …. really?)

WSU-Spokane has big plans to greatly expand its health science programs in Spokane in coming years, including moving its College of Pharmacy from Pullman to Spokane.

As many observed since the 1980s, without graduate programs in multiple disciplines, Spokane’s innovation economy is ham strung.

Do we have what is needed for a 21st century innovation-based economy?

Are we Aiming High Enough?

Spokane is the 2nd largest city in the State and the County is the 4th largest by population.

In terms of the much desired research university, Spokane has the smallest branch campus of any research university, as shown in the following chart of WSU branch campuses. Tacoma, with UW-Tacoma branch campus has 3,155 students enrolled today, Bothell has 3,227 students while Spokane has 1,267, even though its been here since 1989. (Crossed out “branch”. Since 2004, WSU-Spokane is not a branch campus but an actual campus.)

While WSU-Spokane will grow larger, so will the others. Spokane’s campus is the smallest and now its the slowest growing. Why?

Local promoters have asked the State to open a 2nd medical school in Spokane. That would be a great asset but due to funding, the Governor says not until sometime after 2021.

This doesn’t feel right – Is Spokane being short changed?  Have we aimed high enough?

Aiming High or Low

Way back in the 1980s, local leaders identified the lack of a research campus as a weakness.  We settled for SIRTI and the smallest of all research branch campuses in the State, plus a fine non-research university (EWU, and also GU and the smaller Whitworth).

Some one suggested to me that this is due to the area’s culture-“we settle for good enough” rather than consistently aiming high, seeking excellence and really doing what it takes to compete on a world class level. To clarify that comment, there are people here who seek and deliver excellence, but I understand what is being said and hopefully you understand too.

Doing “good enough” shows up in the data (e.g. low participation rates on high school SAT exams). Anecdotally, I’ve run into this “good enough” attitude many times myself.

We settle for good enough. It’s a nice place to raise a family. There’s lots of golf courses. It’s a nice place to retire. It’s near nature, near good enough. But good enough will not be a winning strategy in a globalized economy (unless we settle for regional services where we have some regional market power).  Someone else hints a good enough mind set could have been a factor in why Agilent left town (see the next couple of comments there).. I have no idea, those assertions could be right or wrong.

Why not think big, on the order of another World’s Fair Expo? How about an all out effort to put together all the pieces for a comprehensive innovation based ecosystem? Not just bits and pieces but the whole deal?

Ecosystems

Related Past Posts on this web site that will help in understanding the problems, the issues and possible solutions:

Unfortunately, local leadership (and state law) has us headed down a path through an incoherent industrial cluster strategy.  We need to build the whole ecosystem and stop drawing ever expanding geometric shapes on a map to proclaim we have clusters that we do not actually have.

Recommendation

Keeping in mind that I am probably off the wall, possibly clueless and perhaps just wrong – with that in mind, here goes:

  1. Let’s invest in people and ideas, not concrete.

  2. Aim high. Really high.

  3. Do not settle for anything less than excellence.

Will that happen?  It will if we can break out of the good enough mindset. Kinda hard to break but like concrete, when hit with a big enough sledge hammer cracks can develop …

But it might not happen without financial incentives to well connected landowners in town: Benefiting from poured concrete paid for by someone else has been a pretty good gig! (Of course, the med school will be built right where you can guess and benefit … oh, you get the idea …)

Odds favor that we continue to pour concrete to eternity, wages will be unacceptable, ambitious people seeking excellence and and young people with skills and seeking opportunity will head for the coastal cities. Like they’ve been doing for some time. Read what Timothy Egan wrote about Spokane in the NY Times.

“Good enough” and “pouring concrete” are possibly the root cause issues to address. That would make for an interesting discussion topic.  For those that asked for recommendations, there you go!

I could be completely wrong, but at least its different than 30 years of existing plans and strategies.

Alternatives?

The alternative is to settle into a collection of regional service industries which is what we have today. Government is a service, health care is a service, and most of the next largest sectors (retail, hotels and restaurants, business and professional services) are services meeting the needs of the two big kids on the block (government and health care and their work force).

Those that prefer to compete at a world-class, globalized economy level in fields other than government and health care, local service and niche market industries, will find better opportunities somewhere else. Fair enough.

But we will need to re-align our local promotional efforts with this goal (they are not now aligned). And we will still be stuck with our stubborn wage problem: except for the big government and health care sectors, most of our remaining services sectors do not pay well.

Spokane Unemployment Rate Now at 10.6%

Chart shows total employed. A decade worth of job growth, lost, as the number of employed is now at year 2000 levels. National unemployment is at 8.9% and the State wide unemployment level is down to 9.1%.

Looking at January and February, 2011 seems to be tracking a little bit better than 2010. Reminder – chart does not include active duty military, sole proprietors, farmers, …

You can eye ball the chart and see that based on 1990 to 2007 growth, a few years ago the Spokane area was expected to have about 235,000 jobs today.  By that measure, Spokane is 17% below where we thought we were going to be. Kinda puts this depression in perspective?

In the year 2000, unemployment was over 6%. Since then, 10% of all jobs were lost and the population increased, leaving us with … 10.6% unemployment? They only include those who are looking – discouraged workers who give up looking fall off the face of the planet.  Under different circumstances, our real unemployment would be close to 20% (the 6% rate of 2000 plus the 10% jobs lost plus additional population). Which explains all the empty office space and vacant retail shops.

On March 4th, KXLY ran a story saying “Unemployment rate falling in Spokane“.  Which is a good example of why basing a story on anecdotes leads to faulty conclusions.

Below is the same earnings distribution chart included in the Part 3 recommendations, but here it is both sorted and displayed horizontally.

The following is from 2008. As you can see, the majority of jobs are in the top 3 low paying service jobs category. As of 2008, 36% of all jobs were in these 3 categories. The “bioscience cluster” is the 2nd to the bottom row and is the current targeted growth cluster for Spokane’s future.

All charts are from WorkForceExplorer.com

Recommendations 2: Part 3 – Wages and pouring concrete

The Spokane Club at 1002 Riverside, in Spokane...

Image via Wikipedia

Local promoters and others present a chart showing that wages in Spokane have risen consistently over time.

That would be fine except it misses the full story. Unfortunately, Spokane wage growth lags the rest of the State.  By a lot.

As you can see in the following chart, while Spokane (red line) wages have increased, average wages in the state (blue line) have increased faster. Over several decades, wages in the State have increased at twice the rate of wages in Spokane. Stated another way, the longer we stay in Spokane the further behind we fall.


Average wages are about 80% of the rest of the State, yet our costs of living are closer to 100%. We have to spend close to the national average to live here (somethings, like health care, are priced higher than the national average).


From: Spokane’s Economy in Two charts

The above is still not the full picture. The distribution of wage income in Spokane County is odd as you can see in this chart:

Source: Relative Wage Distribution in Spokane County

Most of the wage income is produced by government and health care jobs. This is not a diversified economy, although plenty of reports and promoters claim it is.

Finally, we see that Spokane has a high poverty rate and it is getting worse – its about 50% higher than the rest of the state:

Source: Spokane Poverty Rates

A side effect is that increasing numbers of residents are dependent on the government (other taxpayers) to provide for them such that nearly $1 out of every $5 of income in this county is a check from the government (this does not include government worker wages). This trend is also occurring outside the Spokane area.

Source: Trend of Transfer Payments in to Spokane County.

This is not a short term problem.  Low wages and an elevated poverty rate are a chronic, long term problem, described in every economic study, report, and proposal going back at least 30 years.   Dr. Gary Livingston, former Chancellor of the Community Colleges of Spokane, and Whitworth University President Dr. Gary Beck both described this problem in the past year.

A side effect of low incomes and poverty is that less tax revenue is collected by local government.  Bringing up local wages would result in increased budgets for local government to fund the projects that citizens would like to have.

How do we solve this? I do not know but I do have an idea of a possible root cause that I explain below.

Since all of the past plans made the same findings and the same recommendations, should we do more plans? I doubt it.

Did anyone read the old plans and try to implement ideas from those plans? I doubt it, but if they did, then why have comparative wages continued to slide?

Why?

I do not know and can only make a stupid guess: Do we focus too much on real estate related projects?

This is just a guess – an idea to think about.

$3.7 billion has poured into downtown Spokane during the past decade (both public and private $s). Downtown is much nicer than it was. And we are not done yet – there’s big plans for even more spending in downtown.

  • Did this focus on downtown neglect other important improvements?
  • Has this distorted government spending and zoning changes to benefit a few landowners at the expense of many?
  • Buyers of luxury homes in Kendall Yards will not pay property taxes for 12 years. A nice little subsidy from the less well to do in Spokane who still have to pay taxes.  And a nice way to increase downtown land values.
  • Light rail, which was rejected by voters a few years ago, is back in the news again. Light rail projects would tremendously benefit landowners near proposed light rail stations.
  • We’ve built a $570 million dollar freeway to no where – called the North side freeway way up in north Spokane where it goes between who knows what and where ever. It won’t connect to I-90 for at least another 20 years; in the meantime its a great big piece of concrete that is not adding value comparable to its $570 million investment.  That is a big asset that will mostly be idle for 20 more years. When the full freeway does open, Division may turn into empty store fronts just like Sprague Ave did when I-90 was built. For now, this is a very expensive largely unused asset.
  • $191 million has gone in to recent airport improvements where usage has been roughly flat for 15 years.
  • We bought a $95 million remodel of the Convention Center in 2005 and now propose spending another $65 million. Convention center visitors help help create more (low wage) restaurant and hotel jobs  – and increase the value of downtown land.  After the last $95 million expansion, airport usage went down and a big local hotel went out of business.  Read what they are thinking about convention centers over in Tacoma… (I have no idea if this was a good project or not – I am just observing that the benefits might not be as envisioned.)
  • There’s a proposed $8 million bicycle bridge over the railway from WSU-Spokane to the “International district” on east Sprague.
  • And then there’s the proposal to build a new electric trolley car in downtown Spokane. Because downtown Spokane needs more investment funded by a general sales tax increase and possibly a property tax increase for those who actually benefit. Perhaps because so many buildings are empty or in foreclosure?

After all that spending, wages have fallen further behind. The poverty level has gone up.

May be this focus on mega real estate projects isn’t working out so well?

We pour lots of concrete partially because the Federal government hands out a lot of grants for pouring concrete. And we really like to spend money on downtown Spokane, delivering large benefits to a few.  When we spend money on X it means we are not spending money on Y – and around here, Y is everything else.

(Update: After this blog post went live, a reader passed along some information about “The Fancher Report”. My hypothesis turns out to be very old and was a fundamental finding in the Fancher thesis, written for a Harvard Masters degree in 1977. You can find a summary here and can download and read the whole thesis at the bottom of the page. He found that local interests, notably connected to the Cowles family, had successfully obtained taxpayer funding for programs that benefited a core group of downtown landholders by taxing everyone.  My idea was that our “no go” economy came from malinvestment. The Fancher report explains how that came to be.)

What if a little bit of this money had been spent on a medical school in Spokane? (I know, we can get grants for pouring concrete but not building medical schools.)

Or creating the comprehensive research university that local leaders have talked about over and over and over again for 20+ years?

Or setting up our own fund for local entrepreneurs?  VC money for Spokane area start ups is harder to come by than for start ups over on the coast. Because we don’t have the ecosystem here.

Perhaps we need to invest in people and ideas, not concrete.

The 21st century is about creative people building innovative solutions. But Spokane is pouring concrete to recreate a central down town core of a bygone era.

Pouring concrete creates (temporary) jobs often funded by some one else (taxpayers) and tends to provide big benefits to a small number of well connected locals – and I do not mean just the one landowner that everyone thinks of first around here – there’s more than a few that benefit. Apparently others have noticed this too – darn – I am late again. It is not a conspiracy as some suggest – it is just a well connected group that understandably does a good job of looking out for their own rational self interests.

Spokane will pour concrete to eternity rather than invest in people and ideas. Think about it.

Or I could be completely wrong and this idea is nothing more than a stupid guess. But at least it is a different idea than that presented in 30 years of local economic plans (more on this in Part 4.) Spokane is not the only town with these symptoms. A lot of small and mid-sized cities are dealing with this.

Part 4 – Plans – Aiming High – Seeking Excellence

  • Where “good enough” is no longer good enough.

All ideas are welcome, provided it does not involve writing yet another economics strategy study that no one reads, and does not involve pouring more concrete.

Recommendations 2: Part 2 – How to “hide the decline”

Some local agencies and organizations provide some data, and some times, information, on their web sites – but sometimes they practice “hide the decline”. We do not know if this is due to lack of resources, is inadvertent, is an “honest mistake”, is due to sloppiness or carelessness, incompetence or deliberate decision to hide something, or that my common sense interpretation of what I see is just weird. We don’t know.

But if you want to hide the decline, some of the examples may give you some ideas 🙂

These examples involve good to outstanding organizations who are usually doing good to outstanding work. These comments are intended as suggestions for improvement and should be taken that way. They may be embarrassing to a few people – I am sorry if that is the case. The goal is to show how improvements can be made to make these items better!

Spokane International Airport – Lots of Numbers

SIA is a fine airport and has done a lot very good things. But sharing data?  Not where they need to be. I’ve covered this item already and am repeating this here in part to show what it took to get to the actual data and turn it into useful information.

The airport’s long term passenger load has been approximately flat since 1996. But you would not discover this unless you tortuously went through the tables of numbers they provide, but spread across many pages and many links. And you would definitely not know this because the historic data back to 1995 was well hidden on the web site. When you click on a link for the data for a single month, you see a URL like this: http://spokaneairports.net/Pass_stats/12-10ep.pdf

If you delete the filename at the end to leave http://spokaneairports.net/Pass_stats/

you obtain the full file directory of older data going back many years. While painstaking, each monthly report can be transcribed, by hand, into spreadsheet, and turned into a useful chart.

Hidden deep within this file directory is a document named historic.pdf that provides historic data. There is no clickable link on the airports web site to access this data. But the file becomes visible if you use the trick to truncate the URL as shown.

Regardless of the effort to get to the data, it should not be hidden. SIA should have charts up on their web site.  Making it visible would help local leadership make informed decisions.

When this data was combined with a forecast chart in the airport’s master plan (issued in 2000), we saw that the forecast was wrong the year it was issued and deviated further and further away from reality every year since. The forecast part of the chart had to be interpolated from a chart printed in the master plan; the data was not available.

The airport management announced in the fall of 2010 that they would – ten years later – be updating their master plan with a revision expected in 2011.

By comparison, check out SeaTac Airport Statistics. The PDF reports at the top create some nice charts (would be better if they were visible on the web page) and data can be downloaded in .xls spreadsheet files. Here’s an example of how SeaTac makes their data accessible – I just opened their PDF report:

I tried to identify the money spent on infrastructure improvements at SIA over the past decade. That information is not obviously available on the SIA web site. I eventually found it in an EWU study on economic effects of the airport (about $190 million of improvements over the past 8 years). Historic and trend data on revenues and spending should be easily available to the public so we know how our fee and tax money is being spent. This applies to all local governments.

I think SIA is a fine airport – the new airport director and management will likely do a better job of sharing important information with stakeholders in the future.

Washington State University – Funny Press Releases

I am big supporter of WSU; we need more support for higher education in this state, not less. And I will discuss that further in Part 3 and Part 4.

With that in mind, I found the following example to be funny. The following text appeared in the 2010 press release on spring semester enrollment. Similar wording was used in 2009 and 2011. Can you spot the odd one out?

The university’s fastest-growing campus continues to be WSU Tri-Cities, which enrolled 1,508 students, an increase of 160 or 11.9 percent over last spring. Enrollment at WSU Vancouver is 2,892, up 105 students or 3.8 percent over spring 2009.

The Pullman and Spokane campuses, which are considered one campus for state enrollment reporting purposes, showed an overall increase of 1.3 percent or 265 students over spring 2009. The Pullman campus enrollment is 18,629 students and WSU Spokane has 1,311 enrolled for spring.

When the enrollment rose at branch campuses, the enrollment increase was highlighted.  For WSU-Spokane, only an enrollment number is provided. That’s a data point – not information.

The omission of whether there was an increase or decrease made me laugh – this is a press release issue. The local media never noticed the decline in enrollment at WSU-Spokane.

WSU has  an Institutional Research office that provides a lot a TON of data –  on enrollments including in downloadable .xls spreadsheet format.  Charts would be nice but with easily accessible data, we can create our own charts. WSU (overall) and the IR group are doing a great job.

The chart above and below are produced by me from the enrollment data provided by WSU’s Office of Institutional Research.

It is hard to see but the blue line, which is Spokane’s enrollment, goes down. I created this chart and an accident of how I made the chart presents an interesting way to hide a decline – just cover it up with other lines on the chart! This is a common technique but blame me for this chart, not WSU!

To see the decline a bit better, here is a chart showing only the branch campus enrollments. The blue line and section represents WSU-Spokane.

WSU provides a lot of great data through their Institutional Research web site. It could be improved with more charts – but they are to be commended for providing the raw data. But the press release wording-that’s just funny!

The WSU-Spokane campus will be revisited in Part 4.

The News Media – Lacking Context

It would be helpful if local news would present trend charts showing how things have changed over time. Typically, they present the raw number someone put in the press release (like the above). Without seeing the historical trend in news reports, the story is just noise and not useful information that the reader can use for understanding.

For example, compare seeing today’s stock report with no knowledge of where the market has been yesterday, last month or during the past years.  Which is more useful? A single stock price quote or a chart? Numbers in most news stories are just numbers and devoid of important context.

When I tracked down the companies that left the area or downsized, it was hard to find out how many employees the companies once had. When a company folded or moved out, and if the closure was even covered (we cover new business openings but sometimes miss closures) some news reported the loss of employees as of the last day. But most of these companies had been downsizing for a period of time. I saw one report that said when Agilent closed, it was the loss of 99 jobs. Really? The company had been downsizing from a high of at least 1,500 staff.  Some old reports said that when contract workers, consultants, on-site vendors and others were included, the site in Liberty Lake might have had nearly 2,000 people total (SR news article quoting former Agilent Human Resource manager). Seeing the total loss in context – from between 1,500-2,000 workers is quite a bit different than reading about a loss of 99 workers (update: the SR, by the way, reported this with the full context).  When Itronix closed, 380 workers were affected. But just before that, the company had 450 workers and may be even 520 said some old news reports.

Seeing the full context helps us understand the overall impact of a business that is growing, shrinking or closing.

With all the cutbacks at the local media, I assume they lack the time and resources to do the job that they really want to do (I think this is the main issue). The problem affects many stories. For example, reports about local and state budgets never show us past budget plans, actual spending or tax revenues or trends in those values.  This is critical information needed for the reader to put the present situation into historical context and see what trends there might be in spending or taxes.

And then there’s the happy talk news – read the comments to this news story – especially the one by “Zelda” … see how leaving out the context creates a “fake but accurate” style of report.

Local Government – More Info Please!

Most local government agencies need to greatly improve their data reporting to the public.  How has their spending changed over time? Their staff? Their revenue collection?  What metrics do they collect to monitor their effectiveness? Do the metrics show improvements over time?

GreaterSpokane, Inc – Pick Cherries!

A time honored technique to minimize a decline is to just move the start or end points of your graph  – delete the data you would rather others did not see.

In 2010, I looked at patent production per 100,000 population, which is a measure sometimes used to indicate a region’s innovation capability.  GreaterSpokane, Inc (GSI), used the following table to show only a minor drop in local patent production:

The “trick” here was to set the start to 2004. In reality, the local patent production rate fell by -75% since the late 1990s. The chart above may have been due to insufficient research, an “honest mistake”, carelessness or that someone else handed them the chart and they just republished it.  They may not have been picking cherries.

GSI’s job is to promote the region. Understandably their focus is promotion and to highlight the positive. However, as a means for understanding our local economy and planning purposes, GSI’s reports can be misleading as they focus on the positive and miss the negative.

GSI’s web site also has a lot of out of date information. They need to audit every page – and verify that every claim is still true or meaningful.  For example, about 25% of their list of top local tech employers are either out of business, not actually tech companies or not local.

Various local web sites also have lists of “awards” or proclamations by magazines about life in Spokane – but most are undated. Tracking some of them down, some are old and no longer mean anything useful about today’s Spokane.

There are other examples but you get the idea.

As we will see in the next two examples, when we see sloppiness, it makes Spokane look dated, quaint and out of date. We can do a lot better than this!

Terabyte Triangle – Spokane is a High Tech Hot Spot!

This phrase “Spokane is a High Tech Hot Spot – Network World Magazine” appears on many local promotional web sites.  Unfortunately, it is not what Network World actually said. What Network World actually said all the way back in 1998 was that “Spokane is not a high tech hot spot, but is warming up“.

Inaccurate claims such as that are sloppy or untruthful. Take your pick.  Who knows where this phrasing first appeared – its on several local web sites and I suspect the claim developed a life of its own.

DowntownSpokane.org

This is a very useful web site with great information about downtown happenings.  But like the above, some pages are hopelessly out of date.

We begin with, oh dear:

  • Spokane is a high tech hot spot – Network World

Then,

  • Downtown Spokane is a great place for high-tech with more miles of fiber per capita than any other city in the nation

The “more miles of fiber per capita than any other city in the nation” is really, really old. No source has ever been provided for this old claim.

This is quote also has a life of its own across many local web sites. GSI quotes IEEE Today’s Engineer for the source of this, giving the claim a bit of authority. But some sleuthing around suggests that IEEE Today’s Engineer lifted the claim directly from a local promotional web site … nearly identical wording appears on other local web sites up to two years prior to the published story. That does not look good … And today, Spokane ranks #17 out of 19 cities in Washington for overall Internet access speed. In other words the above claim, if it was true once upon a time, is doubtfully true today. But what ever …

Going down the page, this claim is  embarrassing:

  • More than 20 Downtown buildings have been rewired to provide easy and affordable access to high-speed—and redundant—internet connectivity

Only 20? Hello? It’s 2011 and this may be a surprise but in many parts of the country, personal homes even have fiber optic connections today!

  • Spokane is already home to high-tech firms including General Dynamics, Cyan, Vivato, Telect and Itron. This clustering of mutually beneficial businesses provides a synergism that attracts businesses providing support services to help high-tech companies grow.

Except that General Dynamics (Itronix) is closed and gone, Vivato is closed and gone and Cyan and Telect have both shrunk their local presence considerably from their hey day.  But other than that …

Always a nice supportive quote:

  • “There are clusters of established companies here that high tech start-ups can draw from, plus a lot of interest in creating business to business relationships.”

Except the quoted CEO was with a start up that is no longer in business. Nice quote, too bad its not quite relevant anymore.

Other pages (and here too) are dated and should be brought up to date. The above is just a small sampling of questionable data and claims seen on local “official” web sites.

Have you spotted a pattern in promotional web sites? They are often old and out of date and say things that are no longer true.  Collectively it reflects badly on Spokane.  Attention to detail? Not here. Inaccuracies and incorrect claims do not help promote the area at all.

I am sorry these observations appear embarrassing to some local groups. Whether I write about them here or not they are out there for the world to see and they are embarrassing. Let’s pay attention to details and fix them and make these web sites even better!

Recommendation 2: Part 2

For what ever reason – honest mistakes, laziness, sloppiness, lack of attention to detail or perhaps  “hiding the decline”, the sort of things described above – and those are only a partial list – suggest “good enough” is common here.  Parts 3 and 4 will address why good enough is not good enough – we need to aim high and seek excellence.

On a brighter note – Good ideas come from other good ideas!

Good ideas come from analyzing, synthesizing and understanding what we see around us. Getting an accurate picture of the situation in Spokane and at local institutions will help all of us know where we are and help us to make better decisions to get to where we want to go!

Local agencies need to be producing useful information, not just data points (see Part 1).

Local agencies and organizations need to making their useful information readily accessible to everyone (Part 2).

Local agencies and organizations need to provide accurate information.

The more accurate data and useful information that all of us see, the better the quality of our decision making!

The Part 2 recommendation is then:

  • Accurate data, portrayed accurately is best for all of us. All of the mistakes above (and that is just a sample) when seen together portray an area that is sloppy or careless. This does not make Spokane look good.
  • Clean up old promotional web sites, audit every page and every claim
  • For those of us who consume data and information, keep your eyes wide open for sloppiness in the data provided to us – be skeptical!
  • If you have responsibility for any of the above – let’s fix these and make them better!

Part 3 reviews the low wage problem and hypothesizes that we’ve been investing in pouring concrete for far too long. For the 21st century we need to invest in people and ideas, not more concrete.

Part 4 follows up with more on our concrete obsession, but adds that we seem to aim low instead of aiming high.

WordPress outage

WordPress experienced a major outage today, during which this blog may not have been accessible. The problem was due to fixing a server which, they say, led to a cascade of other failures.

On better news, the SR Office hours blog says that Verizon has announced it plans to deploy 4G services in Spokane sometime during 2011.

Tough times in Tacoma’s down town core

Business & Technology | Tacoma works to recover from economic blows | Seattle Times Newspaper.

Interesting:

About one-quarter of Tacoma’s residents older than 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree. In Seattle, more than half do. In Portland and Salt Lake City, about 40 percent.

And:

Meanwhile, city leaders are supporting another initiative: a grow-our-own strategy under a campaign, called “Shift Happens,” that focuses on nurturing local small businesses rather than recruiting big ones.

“Tacoma is littered with the husks of large companies that once composed the foundation of our economy,” according to the campaign, which cites the departures since the 1970s of corporate headquarters such as Weyerhaeuser and Russell as well as large employers such as Expedia and Nalley’s.

And:

Bringing conventions and events to the city can help the local economy, he said, but Tacoma has stiff competition.

“It’s hard to compete with Vegas,” Wali said. “Tacoma’s as much fun as Sacramento, as much fun as Boise.”

To increase the desirability of shopping down town – the city just started to charge for parking that was previously free. Brilliant.