Stand inside River Park Square's five-story glass atrium on a Friday night and you'll see long lines at the AMC 20 Theatres and hear laughter spilling from standing-room-only Twigs Bistro & Martini Bar.

Wander outside to the streets of downtown Spokane, Wash., and you'll see further signs of vitality: tourists admiring the palatial, century-old Davenport Hotel — newly renovated to the tune of $30 million — or teenagers gawking at Kid Rock's tour bus parked outside The Big Easy, a new 1,500-seat concert hall.

The crowded bars, restaurants and entertainment venues are a far cry from the vacant buildings and drive-by shootings that plagued Spokane's urban core a decade ago. Some credit local developer Betsy Cowles, whose uncle and father built the original River Park Square in the early 1970s, with sparking $1.6 billion in downtown growth in the past five years. Cowles spearheaded a $115 million public-private redevelopment of the mall that kept Nordstrom from heading to the 'burbs and lured Banana Republic, Williams-Sonoma and other coveted retailers to Spokane.

River Park Square may be a poster child for the retail-as-catalyst theory, but it also illustrates the pitfalls of public-private partnerships. Not long after the revamped mall's debut in 1999, a scandal over financing of its $31.5 million parking deck divided the city and prompted bitter lawsuits, some of which remain unresolved. “It was all-consuming,” recalls Ted. S. McGregor Jr., editor and publisher of The Inlander, a Spokane-based weekly newspaper. “Every politician was forced to have a position on River Park Square.”

Urban Blight

Downtown Spokane had declined in the early '70s, in part because of decaying infrastructure and unchecked industrial pollution. In the run-up to the 1974 World's Fair, however, a wave of construction and beautification projects brought the city back to life. Among the added flourishes was the original Nordstrom-anchored River Park Square. The mall shared a four-block retail district with three popular department stores: JCPenney, Frederick & Nelson and The Bon Marché (now Bon-Macy's).

These stores drew shoppers from across the Inland Northwest for nearly 20 years, but by the early 1990s downtown Spokane was again in decline. “As the shopping malls had emerged in the suburbs, there was this flight of retail out of the central core,” Cowles explains. “We were starting to see the blight and crime that creeps in with vacant buildings.”

The once-bustling retail district was particularly hard-hit: The J.C. Penney Co. had shuttered its downtown store, Frederick & Nelson had gone bankrupt and Nordstrom's 20-year lease was up for renewal. The Seattle-based retailer seemed unlikely to stay in sleepy Spokane.

A Not-so-simple Plan

Cowles, a member of Spokane's wealthiest founding family, knew it would take something dramatic to keep Nordstrom downtown. She had studied revitalization efforts in Indianapolis, San Diego and Seattle and concluded something similar might work in Spokane. City officials liked the idea. “The City Council was pretty desperate to not have Nordstrom flee on their watch,” McGregor notes.

The plan was to build a 129,000-square-foot Nordstrom on three floors of a six-level, 373,000-square foot shopping, dining and entertainment complex. It wouldn't be cheap. “Large downtown retail projects are still very expensive, and we didn't have the square footage to spread the cost of Nordstrom's, frankly,” Cowles recalls. “So the return on investment was always extremely challenging.”

To help cover the costs, the city borrowed $22.65 million and re-loaned it to the developer. Rent from the mall's 1,300-space parking garage was to be used to repay the money, but the city's backup plan guaranteed the loan with federal grants intended for Spokane's poorest neighborhoods. In another fateful move, the city pledged its parking-meter revenues to back up $31.5 million in parking-deck construction bonds.

Both critics and supporters of the mall agree on one thing: consultants badly overestimated what the parking deck would earn. Not long after the garage opened in 1999, its revenues proved too low to cover debt payments and basic expenses. That led to still-unresolved disputes over the federal grant money and the parking-meter funds used as safety nets in case of default, as well as five years of litigation involving nearly every party in the deal. A federal lawsuit filed by the investors against the city, the developer, the consultants and others goes to court later this month.

The parking-deck scandal embroiled Spokane for years, and charges of “corporate welfare” still dog the mall. “This is a poor community,” says former Spokane City Councilman Steve Eugster, a vocal critic of the deal. “The people are paying a considerable sum of money to have an upscale shopping center downtown that benefits a private party.”

Others say the issue is fading. Spokane-based investment broker David Black, chairman and CEO of Tomlinson Black Management/Commercial, says the mall's benefits outweigh its PR problems. “The list goes on and on as to the projects that have been spurred on by the revitalization of River Park Square and that retail core,” Black says. “Our downtown would have been dead without it.”

Numbers Crunch

City boosters, many of whom quote the $1.6 billion figure, say the list of developments spurred by the mall includes the new $7 million Big Easy concert hall, the four-star Davenport Hotel, a $28 million renovation of the Art Deco Fox Theatre, a $28 million expansion of the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture, a $90 million expansion of the Spokane Convention Center and Opera House, as well as a jazz club, a sports bar, lofts, condos and restaurants. “The parking garage was only a $30 million piece of that,” notes Jon Eliassen, president and CEO of the Spokane Area Economic Development Council. “That's less than 3 percent of all the redevelopment that has been done downtown.”

Eugster's term for the $1.6 billion figure is…unprintable. McGregor, the newspaper editor, is more sanguine. “A lot of that is public money,” he says. “But as far as foot traffic goes, which I think is the measure for downtown, on a Friday night it's hard to get a parking space. I wouldn't say downtown is a spectacular success yet, but it's definitely a lot better than it was.”

The same could be said of River Park Square. After a sluggish start, the mall reports five consecutive years of rising sales. Manager Bob Smith says gross revenues in 2003 were $69 million — 18 percent higher than those recorded for 1999. “Year-to-date, our gross sales number is up 12.9 percent over last year,” he adds. “Our comparables are up nearly 7 percent.”

Moving Forward

Spokane is the largest major city between Minneapolis and Seattle, and as a result River Park Square serves a trade area of up to 1.2 million people. Cowles notes that the mall offers the only Nordstrom, Williams-Sonoma and Ann Taylor stores for hundreds of miles. Other tenants include Pottery Barn, Abercrombie & Fitch, Chico's, Petite Sophisticate and Restoration Hardware.

Cowles is optimistic that the mall will ultimately succeed, but adds that even if the ROI fails to shoot through the roof, the new life in downtown already justifies the project. “It's really rewarding,” she says. “There were countless times when the project would be dead on a Friday but then on Monday we would say, ‘If we don't do this, our city is going to be in a world of hurt. We need to figure out how to make this successful.’”

BOOSTER SEATS

CHALLENGE:

Urban blight threatened downtown Spokane and a 20-year-old, Nordstrom-anchored mall. Frederick & Nelson had gone bankrupt and Nordstrom was seriously considering bolting for the suburbs.

SOLUTION:

Betsy Cowles, whose family owns the Spokesman Review newspaper, spearheaded a $115 million public-private redevelopment that kept Nordstrom from leaving town and lured Banana Republic, Williams-Sonoma and other upscale retailers and restaurants to a revitalized River Park Square.

BUZZ:

Dining and entertainment venues in downtown Spokane draw people from all over the 36-county Inland Northwest region. River Park Square's AMC 20 Theatres and Rock City Grill are perpetually packed. Other offerings include a new concert hall, expanded art museum and renovated theatre.

DATA:

The developer claims the revamped mall, which employs 1,100 people, has helped spark up to $1.6 billion in public and private construction projects downtown. River Park Square's gross retail sales hit $69 million in 2003 — 8 percent better than its first year.

SPOKANE CENTRAL BUSINESS DISTRICT RETAIL SPACE
2002 2003
Total Square Feet 986,977 1,002,098
Vacant Square Feet 198,429 216,732
Vacancy Rate 20.10% 21.60%
SPOKANE DEMOGRAPHICS
Population 431,000
Under 20 120,700
20-44 147,900
45-64 90,500
65 and older 50,700
Unemployment Rate 5.6%
Nonfarm Employment 201,000
Per Capita Income $26,637
Median Household Income $37,308
Median Home Price $124,000