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.

The remainder of this post is “related information” scraped together from past posts or drafts of other posts. In fact, most of the above was written months ago with edits and updates added.

Suggestion: The Public Agency Dashboard

Local agencies should include on their web sites the specific metrics – with specific values – by which they and their various projects and services will be judged.

They should include honest assessments of their progress towards achieving those specific goals. Better yet, include an assessment provided by an independent third party. There is a reason that public companies are audited by accounting firms – it is an attempt to keep managers honest and accountable to the owners (shareholders). Some times it even works!

At the present time, spending money seems to be the only metric which is kind of an easy goal to achieve and is disconnected from outcomes.

A lack of accountability leads to comfortable mediocrity, a seemingly brain dulling effect where managers and staff show up to their office each day and confuse being busy with accomplishing great things.  We can be sure the PFD staff is busy – but with increasing expenditures while simultaneously seeing attendance declines, something is very, very wrong.

And it is not just the PFD that suffers these problems. Having studied the PFD in the past, the PFD was easy to use to illustrate local problems in Spokane. We had all the data in hand. Collecting the data is time consuming and not easy.

Each agency web site should have a dashboard panel with a list of goals and a green, yellow, red, or black indicator light. Green means exceeding goals, Yellow means roughly achieving goals, Red means failing goals, Black means a failed project. Clicking on the panel light should then give the details – all the gory details, preferably in a long term trend chart like those shown here. We need to stop hiding the declines if we expect to fix the local economy.

For the PFD, we’d see a list of red lights and possibly one yellow light for hotel rooms. And that would lead to asking questions and fixing the problems, holding staff accountable, or replacing staff and management.

The Convention Center Industry

Part of the problem is much of the convention industry may be in long term decline – while taxpayer funded convention centers are growing larger and larger, all are chasing a smaller number of convention goers. We covered this in the past. This is going on all over the country and is leading to excess capacity of empty facilities – there are not enough big conventions to go around.  (The few big conventions get arrogant and issue threats:  build us a bigger meeting space or we go to any of the numerous other underused facilities. Like in San Diego where Comic-Con is threatening to leave unless taxpayers build them a 1/2 Billion $ subsidized enlargement to the existing convention center. Quite the racket.)

For years, the Convention Centers told us they had to expand to remain competitive and attract larger conventions. In 2011, the Convention Center industry tacitly acknowledged this theme was growing stale and quietly changed their argument for expansion so they could hold more small events simultaneously. This is  discussed in this report.

There are plenty of direct beneficiaries, namely construction companies, hotels, restaurants and downtown business interests. In Spokane, all of these were the primary contributors to the last campaign.  The “Citizens of Jobs NOW!” donators list had no actual citizens – just business beneficiaries of public spending.

Convention Center Hotels to the Rescue!

The latest gambit is taxpayer subsidized hotels near convention centers, in hopes of attracting more conventions – and most every city with a convention center is doing this.  Taxpayers are propping up the convention industry  with new hotels all over the country- PortlandSt Louis (bankrupt)Palm BeachNewport NewsSavannahBaltimoreHoustonBostonCharlotteDallasMinneapolis and more.  In one Pacific NW city, the subsidy to an international hotel corporation magically grew from $8 million to $121 million – without any public input.

The idea is that a close, high end hotel will make the convention center more amenable to convention planners. When they all do the same things to prop up declines in use, there are no competitive differentiators – everyone eventually loses.  They all make the same claims about jobs and visitors (this quote is from Palm Beach but sounds just like Spokane)- “Supporters say the [convention center] hotel … is vital to making the county’s convention center more attractive to events that bring tourists and help businesses countywide.”   Most of these privately owned/publicly subsidized hotels next to convention centers are not working out as originally forecast; one has  gone bankrupt. Several have not yielded the forecast increase in convention center visitors that were promised (you know, objective measures!)

Spokane’s Walt Worthy is building a large convention center hotel across the street from the Convention Center and INB. We have a lot of respect for Walt Worthy and do not view this hotel as being the same as the subsidized hotels noted above. There are some taxpayer subsidies going in to this project but they are small compared to many of those done elsewhere. We assume Walt Worthy’s project will be successful.

Separately, the Ridpath Hotel project is hoping, through a historic landmark designation, to have taxpayers pick up as much as about 25% of the costs of renovation (including state and other subsidies).

The proposed downtown trolley is another subsidy to downtown businesses along its route.

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