Spokane Public Schools officials say there’s no way they can take Mayor Jim West up on his suggestion that they buy Joe Albi Stadium from the city.
West had made the suggestion late last week after School Superintendent Brian Benzel sent him a letter suggesting the mayor was reneging on an agreement to let the schools use the northwest Spokane sports facility until 2013.
“When we talked in July 2004, you indicated that the lease for the facility would be extended until about 2013,” Benzel wrote in a letter detailing the problems the district faces if it can’t play football at Albi after this year.
West replied in a letter of his own that the city’s budget outlook is worse than a year ago, and the city can no longer afford between $300,000 and $400,000 in annual payments for the debt and maintenance of Albi, which operates at a loss. He offered to help the school district find an alternate site for football, and suggested a deal.
“We would also welcome continued discussions relative to a transfer of the stadium to District 81 in exchange for the district’s assumption of the city’s debt service, contract obligations and costs relative to the stadium,” West wrote.
That’s not much of a deal, assistant superintendent Mark Anderson said.
“We’ll certainly study it, but I doubt we have the money to buy it,” he said. “It’s certainly not in our financial planning of the bonds that we passed in 2003.”
Spokane Public Schools had hoped to ask voters for money to participate in a multiple sports complex at the old Playfair Race Track site, which the city now owns. But that would have been part of a bond issue the district expects to put on the ballot in 2009, which would have put the schools on track for moving from Albi to a new facility after 2013.
Right now, the district is studying both short-term and long-term plans to replace Albi. If the high schools can’t play at Albi in 2006, they may have to play their football games in the afternoons on school practice fields, because those fields don’t have lights. The district might also try to lease the stadium Gonzaga Prep is building for some district games, Anderson said.
Eventually, the district may upgrade one or two high school fields, adding lights and more bleachers, he said. A sports complex might still be the long-term solution.
West acknowledged Tuesday that he previously had hoped the city could keep Albi open through 2013 when the debts were paid off, then open a sports complex at Playfair that could be used for high school football. In exchange, Spokane and Mead schools and Brett Enterprises would share the cost of replacing the turf to make the field playable for that long.
But plans for a waste treatment facility at Playfair changed and the city’s budget prospects darkened, he said. There’s also a chance Albi will need major electrical repairs.
“The tighter our budget got, the more we needed to get rid of ongoing costs,” he said. “That’s the killer” on Albi.
West said he would still offer to transfer Albi to the schools if they would take over the payments, but he realizes the district is also facing budget problems. He agrees that Albi has far more seats than the high schools need for their games.
“I don’t want to sell it, but that’s the only practical answer,” he said. “The city’s not in the football business, the schools are.”
If the city finds another buyer for Albi – a sale that will require City Council approval – West said he doubted a new owner could get a redevelopment plan approved before the football season was over. If that’s the case, the district might be able to play one more season, if its consultant agrees the turf is usable and the district is willing to assume the liability.
If not, they can play afternoon games until another sports stadium of a more appropriate size is built.
The council will be discussing whether to sell Albi in early August.