By Lee Hughes
Staff Reporter 

Don't build it and they won't come

Medical Lake pushes back against West Plains surrounding growth

 

March 21, 2019



Is there room for growth in Medical Lake? Opinions vary depending on who one speaks with.

But one thing is becoming increasingly clear: the West Plains is growing economically, and with that growth comes the need for more housing and businesses to support it all.

Gerri Johnson, owner of Medical Lake’s Farm Salvation store and president of Re*Imagine Medical Lake, a quasi-chamber of commerce organization, thinks Medical Lake has plenty of potential as a “gem” of Spokane county. But she expressed concern that the city may be missing the boat on West Plains growth.

“How is Medical Lake positioned to be a part of that growth?” she asked.

The idea of growing — or not growing — may be emerging as an increasingly divisive issue in the small, quiet city nestled between tranquil West Plains lakes.

Staying small

Medical Lake Mayor Shirley Maike has long campaigned on a small town, anti-growth platform. Although she isn’t opposed to business growth, neither is she afraid to say that she wants to keep Medical Lake small.

“Most of the citizens I talk to like living in a small town,” she said. “People that I talk to don’t want to live in a town like Airway Heights, or Cheney or Spokane. We like living in Medical Lake for the size that it is.”

But her position on business is the opposite — she’s pro-business growth.

Maike said the city works with new or prospective businesses, guiding them regarding business-related ordinances and zoning issues. The city will even help them obtain state business licensing paperwork.

“We are very supportive and will help as much as possible to get them on the road to success,” she said.

Maike’s pro-business attitude was confirmed by at least one local business owner.

Kevin Gerhart, owner of the Lefevre Street Bakery Café, said the city welcomed his restaurant with open arms, and has supported the three-year-old business.

“Medical Lake has been very welcoming to us,” he said of both city government and his customers.

Growth constraints

There are at least two constraints that support Maike in her small town agenda, however: water and a limited tax base.

Medical Lake has a finite number of water connections available for new construction — only four to six according to Maike — which in turn restricts development.

The city is currently in the process of updating its expired Water System Plan, according to the Washington State Department of Health. They could potentially increase the number of water service connections in the process.

Meanwhile, City Administrator Doug Ross has said while the city has no debt, neither does it have a strong tax base, and as a result remains strapped for cash.

Law enforcement services, once a city function, are now contracted-out to the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department.

And at it’s March 19 meeting, the City Council approved on first reading of an ordinance to place a proposition before voters in an August election to merge the city fire department with Spokane County Fire District 3.

If approved, the merger could save the city approximately $44,000 annually, according to city documents.

But building more homes doesn’t necessarily increase the city’s tax base, at least according to both Ross and Maike. People tend to shop outside Medical Lake for goods and services, Ross has said, taking with them sales tax revenues from which the city would otherwise benefit if people shopped locally.


And Maike said that a 50-home development only increases the number of streets the city needs to plow in the winter.

Challenges to small

Gerhart challenged Ross’s assessment of local shopping habits.

“I guess I would disagree that they leave the area,” he said of local shoppers.

But he also said it’s not the city’s fault if businesses aren’t attracting and keeping customers — it’s the businesses. People will stay, he said, if you build the right kind of business.

“It was our philosophy that we had faith in what we were doing, and we thought that if we could provide the best quality products that we can provide — food through our restaurant — that the people will support it,” Gerhart said. “And they have.”


He also disagreed that Medical Lake should remain small.

People often refer to Medical Lake as a Spokane cottage community. Gerhart embraces that idea. He envisions the city becoming a distinct place similar to neighborhoods in bigger cities like Seattle’s Queen Anne, or Spokane’s Perry District.

And unlike Maike’s view of limiting residential growth while supporting business growth, Gearhart contended you can’t have one without the other — they go hand-in-hand.

“The residential has to grow for the businesses to grow,” Gerhart said. “As business owners we’re not opposed to growth.”

But Maike contends that Medical Lake is growing — albeit at a glacial pace. She noted that some homes and duplexes are being built in the city.

“It’s not like were not growing — we are,” She said. “But we do it in a way that we can manage.”

Managing growth

The city is currently in the process of updating it’s Comprehensive Plan, a state-mandated process document intended to force municipalities to formalize how they deal with and manage urban growth and related issues.

Part of the update requires that two public meetings be held to gather public comment.

While the Comprehensive Plan revision effort continues at the city Planning Commission level, the requisite public meetings have yet to be scheduled, Ross said.

Johnson expressed appreciation for Medical Lake government’s ability to live within it’s means, but she also felt the potential for Medical Lake is increasing with the growth around it, and the city should be doing more to leverage itself.

Medical Lake has many community attributes other West Plains cities lack, Johnson said, such as three lakes in the immediate vicinity that include walking and biking trails.

“This is what you can do when you come to Medical Lake,” Johnson said she often tells out-of-town customers.

Even as Johnson bemoans the lack of promotion from city government, she’s just as quick to recognize the small things the city does do.

At a recent meeting she thanked the council for erecting road signs that direct travelers to the city’s business district.

Medical Lake does provide services that at least indirectly benefit local businesses. The city spent approximately $4,000 last year in city employee labor and other costs erecting barricades and providing other support items related to Winterfest and Founder’s Day celebrations, Ross said.

But those costs aren’t related to business promotion, and Ross is quick to point out that it isn’t a function of city government to promote business.

“Municipalities aren’t chambers of commerce,” Ross said. “It’s the role of the city to provide and maintain infrastructure.”

Lee Hughes can be reached at lee@cheneyfreepress.com

 

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