Business groups push Coeur d’Spokane-Combined metro area would mean more jobs and federal money, they say

Business groups are pushing for the federal government to declare Spokane and Kootenai counties a single metropolitan area.

Karen Dorn Steele
Staff writer Spokesman-Review

The combined metro area of more than 500,000 people would raise the region’s profile, attract more companies looking to relocate, and lure extra federal dollars, business leaders say.

Where the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene region would rank nationally isn’t known. Other areas may also be proposing similar mergers, and the national rankings won’t be determined until next year.

Spokane County has a population of 417,939 in the 2000 Census, making it the 99th-largest metro area in the nation. The Boise area, with 432,345 people, ranks 97th.

Combining Spokane with Kootenai County, which had 108,685 residents in the 2000 Census, would likely push the region into the top 80 metro areas. There are now 81 metro areas with populations above 500,000.

"This would benefit us," said Doug McQueen, director of the University of Idaho Research Park in Post Falls. "It would make us a bigger metro area than Boise."

The federal government allows separate counties to combine into a single metropolitan area if enough residents commute between the two counties for work.

The region must act on the merger proposal by Oct. 30 or wait a decade until the next census, says a recent white paper by the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, which is pushing for the combined designation.

Last year, the Office of Management and Budget, the budgetary arm of the White House, adopted new combined metro area guidelines that use job-commuting statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and other criteria.

The 2000 Census showed that more than 21 percent of the work force commutes between Spokane and Kootenai counties.

In 1990, OMB said neighboring counties in which 15 percent of workers commute back and forth can become combined metro areas. That requirement has since been raised to 25 percent.

But the agency also agreed to consider mergers for areas with commuter rates between 15 and 25 percent if people in both counties support the move.

Merger proponents tried after the 1990 census to combine the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene areas, but the commuter rate was below 15 percent.

"If the region opts to maintain status quo, Spokane and Kootenai counties are likely to be automatically combined after the next U.S. Census in 2010," the chamber white paper says. "However, waiting for this to happen automatically may not be in the best interest of our region."

The Census Bureau is accepting public comment on any possible mergers until the end of October and will then make recommendations to OMB, said Todd Gardner of the Census Bureau.

The Spokane Regional Chamber is planning a news conference this morning on the proposal, said Jeff Selle, the chamber’s regulatory affairs manager.

Don Barbieri, the Spokane Regional Chamber’s outgoing chairman, has touted the combined metro area as a way to attract more good-paying jobs.

Forbes Magazine editor Rich Karlgaard has predicted a new corporate migration in the coming decade from larger cities to areas with populations around 500,000.

The new designation also could boost some federal spending.

Spokane County’s wage index is 20 percent higher than Kootenai County’s, so combining the areas would give Kootenai County a permanent boost in Medicare reimbursement formulas.

Kootenai Medical Center now has to apply every few years to be included with Spokane for reimbursement for inpatient services, said Joe Morris, KMC’s chief executive officer.

"It means about $32.5 million on the inpatient side for us. It’s a big deal," Morris said.

Kootenai County doctors also would get paid about 7 percent more for Medicare patients than they do now, and nurses also would get a wage boost, Morris said.

"It would improve access to health care for Medicare patients and would affect the larger medical community," he said.

The Spokane-Coeur d’Alene metro merger also could boost federal allocations and grant opportunities — especially in transportation and social services, the chamber says.

There is widespread support for the proposal, said McQueen, the University of Idaho Research Park director.

Spokane and Coeur d’Alene are far from Olympia and Boise and need to cooperate to raise their profile, McQueen said.

But not all business leaders like the idea.

Coeur d’Alene businessman Duane Hagadone, who owns the Coeur d’Alene Resort, opposes the designation, according to a Spokane chamber memo about the proposed merger.

His company and others have spent millions of dollars "branding" Coeur d’Alene as a destination resort, and opponents worry the community could lose its individual identity in a merger, the chamber’s white paper notes.

Hagadone’s media holdings also could be affected if national advertisers looking to buy in a region with more than 500,000 people "go to the media with largest market penetration," the memo says.

The area’s largest media outlets are based in Spokane.

Hagadone did not return a call on Tuesday seeking comment.

Shaun Higgins, director of marketing and sales for The Spokesman-Review and author of "Measuring Spokane," a statistical study of the Spokane market, said the area would get more revenue from advertisers buying by combined metro populations.

"’It would probably mean a little lift to all local media, both print and broadcast, regardless of size," Higgins said.

The chamber is asking for input from the Idaho and Washington congressional delegations. Spokane and Coeur d’Alene also must agree on a name for the combined metro area.

•Karen Dorn Steele can be reached at 459-5462 or by e-mail at [email protected].


Plans made for forming metro area
Consolidation could go far in helping region’s economy

Rob McDonald
Staff writer

A meeting to collect public comment about the proposal to create a combined Spokane-Kootenai County metro area will be held Monday at 3:30 p.m. at the Templin’s Resort in Post Falls.

Regional business leaders formally announced their plan Wednesday to combine Spokane and Kootenai counties into a single federally recognized metro area.

To achieve the merger, businesses, government officials and congressional leaders must support the idea.

"We see ourselves as one region," said Doug Kelley, chairman of the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce. "This is one way to make it apparent to the rest of the world."

The consolidation would go a long way toward helping the region’s economy, Kelley said.

Businesses seeking to relocate often look for communities with at least 500,000 people.

The Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area is one of 170 regions nationwide that qualify to voluntarily become a combined statistical area, also known as a CSA.

The Office of Management and Budget, the budgetary arm of the White House, has asked the Eastern Washington and North Idaho congressional delegation to forward comments about the proposed merger, said Michael Ratclife, an OMB geographer who will be on the deciding board.

The official deadline is Oct. 30. But given the volume of information expected from the potentially 170 applicants, the deadline is not firm, Ratclife said.

Because of an oversight, the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area wasn’t notified until last week of the deadline to request a combined metro area, Ratclife said.

"Given that we sent Spokane’s letter several weeks late, I think we can allow a few extra weeks to make up for our oversight," he said.

The OMB is looking for a simple yes-or-no answer to the question of whether the two counties should become a combined statistical area. The answer also must be supported by a wide group of business and political leaders, Ratclife said.

"It could be a joint letter from any number of elected officials and chambers of commerce," Ratclife said. "We don’t want to find out months later or after the OMB announced the definitions to find out that local officials were missed by this process."

A Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce white paper about the proposed single metro area says some people might worry that individual community identity could be lost in a new geographic designation.

"This is especially true in Coeur d’Alene where millions of dollars have been spent branding and marketing the community as a destination resort," the white paper says.

But the paper says that even with a combined metro area, individual identity can remain and the government will still keep a separate set of statistics on each county.

Chamber of commerce representatives from the West Plains, Post Falls, the Spokane Valley and Spokane attended Wednesday’s press conference announcing the proposed combine metro area.

Greg Sweeney, director of public affairs and communications for the Spokane mayor’s office, said Mayor John Powers is behind the effort.

The metro merger could boost federal allocations and grants — especially in transportation and social services, the Spokane chamber said.

OMB should release a a list of the combined metro areas by the spring of 2003.

•Rob McDonald can be reached at (509) 459-5533 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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