If you want to improve something, measure it

The previous blog post about tall tales and lies of Spokane ended with this quote:

It’s why so many countries are so badly broken because they go by appearances, rather than by results.

The idea that we should go by results, rather than by processes, by outcomes rather than by appearances, was revolutionary.

We should evaluate local projects objectively – rather than by appearance – using, if possible, their own goals to determine if they are successful or not.

Let us look at the Spokane Public Facilities District and compare their results with their publicly stated goals.

We discussed the Spokane Public Facilities District earlier this year in the context of hiding the  reduction in NCAA seating requirements.  Turned out that they did not need to add Arena seats for the NCAA. Read the link to learn about that.

Objective Measures

Each time the PFD has sought taxes to enlarge their facilities, they say this:

  • Will lead to increased attendance and usage of their facilities
  • Will create local jobs
  • Will increase the number of visitors to the area
  • Will have a large economic impact on the area
  • Will attract larger conventions to Spokane

Their claims provide objective metrics to measure the effectiveness of the PFD’s management in meeting these goals.

PFD Facility Attendance

  • Even though taxpayers have granted the PFD every tax asked for, attendance is down over the long term.

    In 2011 the combined attendance at Spokane Public Facilities events was 1,319,044. This was a 18.6% decrease compared to 1,619,773 people in 2001” (quote from Community Indicators of Spokane, jointly run by the City of Spokane and Eastern Washington University)


    “The Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena had the highest attendance at 639,081 in 2011 and throughout the period. This represented a 9.8% decrease from 2001. The Spokane Convention Center had the second highest attendance at 247,678 in 2011; a 4.5% decrease from 2001. Spokane County Fair and Expo Center had the third highest at 189,000 attendees in 2011 and the INB Performing Arts Center had 157,285 attendees. These represented 18.2% and 39.4% decreases since 2001 respectively.” (quote from Community Indicators of Spokane, jointly run by the City of Spokane and Eastern Washington University)

    Original chart, below, is from the Community  Indicators of Spokane (CIS) web site through 2011. 2012 data points and notations added by us as best we can. PFD facility usage, by attendance is less than in 1999 and 2001.  Repeated expansions do not show increase in attendance.

  • Follow each facilities attendance line from left to right. The Arena attendance line, at top, is easy to follow downwards – the Convention Center and the INB attendance figures cross in about 2006. INB attendance is sharply below its 1999 level and Convention Center attendance peaked in 2002. This chart, from the CIS web site, is a spaghetti chart of crossing lines, making it difficult to see that attendance at PFD facilities has been in long term decline. Spaghetti charts are often used to intentionally hide something.


The next chart shows “Convention Delegates”, which picks the low point in 2005 as its starting point, rather than the high attendance figure of 2002.  (The numbers in the chart, below, do not agree with the numbers in the chart above, both from the same Community Indicators web site. The trends are identical but the left axis is different. The original data is said to come from the Spokane Journal of Business.)


PFD Expansion Impact on Jobs

  • Non-farm jobs in Spokane are at the same level as the mid-1990s as shown in this chart of total jobs in the City of Spokane (Chart from US Bureau of Labor Statistics).  Based on the jobs data, the claim that repeated expansions of PFD facilities will increase jobs was not true (unless Spokane was simultaneously hemorrhaging jobs in other areas).


PFD Expansions Will Increase Visitors to the Area

Per the PFD’s economic studies, the majority of users of PFD facilities are local residents. Local use is mostly re-arranging how local money is spent, moving it from say, going to a local movie theater or restaurant to attending an event at the PFD .  The PFD’s economic studies, which we will get to in a moment, say that without the PFD, local residents would drive to Seattle and spend their money there instead of in Spokane (which is true for some events and some people).

Because Spokane is an isolated community in a sparsely populated region, a proxy for out of town visitors is the number of passengers using the local airport. Oddly, the more expansions we make to PFD facilities, the fewer the number of visitors arriving by air.  Passenger data through August 2013, pro-rated to end of 2013 for the chart (data from the FAA via the Spokane International Airport – more data is here.)



We see a slight increase in use of hotel facilities in terms of total room nights.  The data, however, ends in 2010, which was the last year of the National Skating Championships. There are slight peaks in 2007 and 2010. Percent occupancy is flat over the period and runs between 55% and 62%. What does the missing 2011 and 2012 data show? (Chart from Community Indicators of Spokane.)


PFD’s Economic Studies

During the campaign to expand the PFD facilities, the PFD provided two economic impact studies. One was completed for 2007 and one for 2010 (sort of). In the latter case, they shifted the calendar to include a 12 month period with two large events that occurred at the beginning and end of the period. Sort of jiggery pokery.

The attendance chart shows that 2007 and 2010 were not typical years for the Arena. The PFD used the two “spike” years for their economic studies. Neither year is representative of typical annual results. Both years featured prominent national events that brought more outside visitors than normal, skewing the body count and the out of town visitor count.

PFD Convention Center Usage

Average daily Convention Center attendance is 778 people/day in a facility that can hold around 12,000 people (Exhibit halls, meeting rooms and banquet room and not including the 2,700 seats in the adjoining INB, and the actual capacity # varies depending on use e.g. classroom, theater, reception, trade show).  In 2007, a PFD economic study pegged occupancy at 16%. Outside of Bloomsday (the big spike), the Convention Center’s overall capacity appears lightly used, as seen in this chart of total attendees by month. (Data from the PFD.)


Should Management Be Accountable for Meeting Their Own Objectives?

Except for the truncated data on hotels, the PFD has missed their goals:

  • Attendance at facilities is in a long term decline
  • Repeated expansions have not stopped the decline
  • Net employment in the City of Spokane has gone down
  • Visitors arriving by air are down to  levels last seen in 1995-1996.
  • Hotel room nights are up slightly through 2010 but data for 2011, 2012 and 2013 are missing.

Should the PFD management and/or Board of Directors be held accountable – such as being replaced for not meeting most of their goals? If not, then who should be held accountable?

Holding Public Projects Accountable

Look at the attendance chart again, then the City of Spokane total jobs trend, then the airport passenger usage. This is a  poor track record. 

This is a management problem, not a concrete problem. Pouring concrete has not produced the desired results in the past.

There are other large public projects that have been completed or are planned for Spokane which seem to lack objective measures of their success, including:

  • Spokane International Airport “improvements”: About one quarter of a billion $s worth of improvements have been made to the airports in the past decade. Next up are the addition of high speed taxiway exits fof the runways and eventually a third runway – to accommodate our “continued growth“! Yet the number of air travelers has fallen to mid-1990s levels and the number of aircraft operations has fallen steadily for a quarter of a century and is now less than half what it was in 1990. What are objective measures for these projects as it appears not to be, say, actual usage of the airport?
  • The heated pedestrian/bike bridge in the University district. What is an objective measure for this project? A $350 million biotech industry clusters around the bridge within 5 years? An average of 1,000 (or 2,000 or 5,000) users per day?
  • The downtown electric trolley project. Define an objective measure for success. 40% average occupancy? 60% of costs collected from fares? Total number of riders per day? Cost per rider?
  • The North-South freeway. The only objective measure seems to be that it is finished within a century.
  • Proposed (and voted down) light rail line between downtown Spokane and Liberty Lake.
  • Proposed light rail between the Spokane Airport and downtown Spokane.

What are the objective metrics by which these projects and their management will be judged and held accountable?

Who will hold them accountable?

  • Spokane leaders and agencies should be measured by objective results – not appearances.
  • To paraphrase Lord Kelvin, if you want to improve something, measure it.
  • To which we add: If you measure something, say something! 
  • Keeping secrets means no one will be held accountable

Unfortunately,  local news coverage does not report on the effectiveness of these projects – instead of a “4th estate“, we have cheerleaders.

Cheerleading may happen due to a lack of resources (its easy to paraphrase a press release) – plus conflicts of interest.

For example, the owner of the Spokesman-Review and KHQ owns significant parts of downtown Spokane and was tied as the 2nd largest campaign contributor to the last PFD tax campaign. Their real estate holdings benefit from taxpayer supported improvements to downtown. You can read more about these conflicts in the Seattle Times, the Spokesman-Review, the Fancher Report and the true life novel “Breaking Blue” by NY Times and Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Timothy Egan. When covering downtown issues, they rarely mention their conflict of interest. Same with water quality issues.

Local news, including TV news, is mostly non-existent from Friday evening until Monday morning – its just wire service reports and stories produced during the week. Obviously a lack of resources.  The Inlander and KXLY talk radio shows are the only outlets asking uncomfortable questions, when they can.

Voters are kept in the dark by cheerleading – and cannot hold government accountable when the voters are unaware.

A side effect is we endure tall tales, exaggerations and lies, leaving the economy stuck in neutral.

This blog is going into hibernation after perhaps one more post. Comments are likely to be turned off.

Update: This is a great step in the right direction for measuring local government services – but what about the PFD and other big $ capital projects (as in cumulatively hundreds of millions of $s)? Silence.

Read more of this post

Spokane “Startup Weekend” November 15-17

“Startup Weekend” is coming to McKinstry Innovation Center Nov 15-17 | LaunchPad INW.

Tall tales of Spokane

President Obama has come under fire for numerous problems of ObamaCare’s implementation and, as the news media has begun to report, the President intentionally lied misled the public about keeping their existing insurance and keeping their existing doctors, which they knew was not a true claim when they said it.

It seems everyone lies when they want to sell us something and this is certainly true in Spokane.

There are folks in Spokane that thrive on tall tales – usually people in the promotional business. Unfortunately, some of their tales are outright lies. And that is embarrassing and unnecessary.

There are plenty of things to talk about, and plenty of positive things to say without resorting to exaggeration, nonsense and lies. So stop it!

Here we highlight a sample of some of embarrassing tall tales:

  • Spokane is a high tech hot spot” – Network World Magazine.  Except Network World actually said Spokane is not a high tech hot spot.  Hey, we only left out one little word… yet this lie lives on today and has been duplicated on many local promotional web sites.
  • While aviation operations and total passengers have been in sharp decline since the mid 1990s we say:
    • Spokane airport might add terminal if GROWTH CONTINUES”
    • The region’s air traffic GROWTH supports local economic development

    Nonsense claims are stupid and embarrassing.

  • A forecast $350 million biotechnology economy in Spokane will only happen if a $16 million pedestrian/bike bridge is built over railroad tracks.  The claim that a future biotech sector hangs on a pedestrian/bike bridge is loony and mostly a heap of dung.  We imagine Pfizer and Merck are scouring the country’s cities for pedestrian/bike bridges to choose their next expansion location. Not.
  • The heated pedestrian/bike bridge will “be unique in the United States, perhaps even in this hemisphere, as a cable-stayed bridge supported by an arch”. A virtually identical bridge was constructed in 2007-2010 in Dallas, Texas. See here for the details. Another Spokane pipe dream based on an outright lie.
  • More amusing tall tales are listed here. One was the odd claim that Spokane has more downtown fiber per capita than anywhere else in the country. How that claim came to be “authoritative” is amusing. Check out the link for the rest of the story.
  • The VisitSpokane web site is a hoot: “You know how I know Spokane is cool? We have 7 colleges/universities in an 80 mile radius!”  They count Eastern Washington University twice and they count Innovate Washington, the de-funded economic development agency as a college. This is an improvement over the past counting of 70,000 students at 18 colleges and universities in the Spokane area. They cheated and included colleges located hours away. Using their original standard, the Tri-Cities can claim Gonzaga is located in the Pasco region!
  • A local real estate company quotes the absurd 70,000 students figure (page 8), and goes way beyond that exaggeration to say there are 1.4 million people living in the Spokane region!  Which is true if the Spokane Region is all of Eastern Washington east of the Cascades (with about 1.2 million population) plus North Idaho from Lake Coeur d’Alene north. The lies never stop in Spokane! We love lies!
  • VisitSpokane’s list of local media organizations counts the Spokesman-Review three times, KHQ, KREM and Comcast, twice. KXLY only warrants a single count. Bummer. And by the way, Comcast is a telecommunications company not a news media company.  Embarrassing.
  • The medical school project will add $1.6 billion to the region’s economy. They counted the growth of the nursing school and the ordinary growth of health care in Eastern Washington and attributed all of it to the presence of the med school. They greatly exaggerated the economic benefits of the medical school to the point of silliness. They didn’t have to – the actual benefits are plenty – but someone chose to inflate the number into a tall tale. Have you noticed a pattern in “economic impact studies”? Excessive exaggeration – and our local media never follows up in the future to see if grand projects lived up to expectations.
  • SPD has officers on its payroll who are prohibited from testifying in Court – because they were caught lying.

Perhaps this nonsense – and this is only a sample – are inadvertent errors of staff. Or it could be we just enjoy telling tall tales and lies and like our local propaganda ministries.

We’ve created a mythology about Spokane that leads people to make wrong decisions, and leads voters and politicians into dead ends because they believe their lies. You can sure see why Forbes magazine labeled Spokane “The ‘Scam Capital of America'” – an easy call for sure.

When we behave like this, the truth, unfortunately, seems more like this:

It’s why so many countries are so badly broken because they go by appearances, rather than by results.

The idea that we should go by results, rather than by processes, by outcomes rather than by appearances, was revolutionary.

The people of Spokane deserve better than what they are getting. These lies are unnecessary, counter productive and embarrassing. There are enough things to talk about honestly – so stop the endless lies, okay?

If you spot lies, tall tales and exaggerations,  let them know you won’t put up with it anymore.

Just say no to stupid lies and tall tales.