In Focus: We’re still too fractured for regional projects

August 17, 2013 

Contrary to the opinion expressed by the Herald’s editorial board regarding the failure of the aquatic center issue, I believe the result shows how little progress we’ve made as a community in the past 30 years.

My point of comparison is the bond issue campaign to support Energy Fair ’83 that went to the ballot in the fall of 1981. Energy Fair was to be a state-sanctioned 15-week, world-class fair intended to give exhibitors at the Knoxville World’s Fair a West Coast venue before the exhibits reached their permanent homes. Energy Fair needed voters to pass a $7.5 million bond issue to construct the proposed “leave-behind” facility — a 13,000-seat coliseum.

Energy Fair’s president, Dr. Jerry Finnegan, had worked tirelessly to obtain letters of support from the several cities, four counties, two states, multiple federal agencies and the several tribes that make up our larger community. Everyone seemed to match Finnegan’s infectious enthusiasm.

That is, until the state commission selected the site (about stone’s throw from Toyota Center). Suddenly, it was no longer a regional project but just something for Kennewick. One after another, cities and county governments seemed to find other interests. The coliseum bond issue, just in Benton County, fell short of the needed 60 percent approval, and the effort folded. An analysis of voting revealed, just as in the case of the aquatic center, that the closer one got to the proposed site the more yes votes there were. There are other similarities as well. There was a strong effort then to put an aquatic center proposal on the ballot and a similar movement promoting a performing arts center. Some supporters of both opined at the time that the only way to get those things was to sink the Energy Fair so their project could get to the head of the line. More than 30 years later, only the coliseum has come to fruition and then only when the city of Kennewick cut what still is a controversial deal with an opportunistic and mercurial Canadian businessman.

The greater Tri-Cities is roughly the same size Spokane was when it was host for Expo 74, yet we haven’t been able to meet even minimum public facility needs for a community this size. Why?

There is a principle in economics called “the tragedy of the commons” that says if everyone acts only in his own rational self-interest, eventually all the resources will be used and everyone loses.

Consider cows grazing in a common pasture. Each farmer adds more cows until the pasture is overgrazed, but no one acts on the realization that their continued prosperity depends on cooperation to limit the total number of cows in the pasture. Who will be the first to take his own cow out of the pasture?

I believe we continue to re-enact the tragedy of the commons on a regional scale, each city’s leadership doing exactly what they believe we, their constituents, want: proclaiming the virtues of regional cooperation but acting in their city’s narrow interest. For example, each of the “local” public facility districts held back a portion of its taxing capacity from the Tri-City Regional PFD before the aquatic center vote, saying that it had other priorities and had to protect them. The Kennewick PFD even went so far as to announce that it would have an issue on the November ballot to expand the convention center. So much for regional cooperation.

In a nutshell, each city council and its associated PFD is unwilling — or believes it is unable — to go “all in” for regional benefit. That is, until each of us, as voters and citizens, makes it clear that the tragedy of the commons has played out long enough. It is time for our elected leaders to act in the “enlightened self-interest” of the entire community.

To make that happen, I believe each of the local PFDs should be dissolved and its assets and responsibilities, and its taxing authority transferred to the regional PFD. The regional PFD should undertake a realistic review of the community’s needs and priorities and come to the voters with a single proposal that sets out the process and timeline for meeting them. Such a proposal must include a performing arts center, aquatics facility or facilities, and expanded trade, convention and exhibition facilities befitting a community of our size.

It can be done. Look around at Yakima, Wenatchee, Spokane and other communities that have done more in much more challenging economic circumstances. Decide for yourself, and let your city and county officials know exactly what you expect.

Kirk Williamson was hired to manage the Energy Fair bond issue campaign, and served as director of marketing for Energy Fair ’83 corporation.

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