A majority of Spokane City Council members this week said they oppose putting Joe Albi Stadium up for sale, at least for now, and their resistance could block Mayor Jim West’s plan to turn the stadium grounds into tax-producing home sites.
“Don’t sell it. Keep it,” said Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers, one of two council members representing the northwest district of the city.
Joe Shogan, the other northwest council member, said, “What I am hearing from my constituents is they want to save it.”
Council President Dennis Hession said the city should be more methodical in considering Albi’s future, particularly in light of its importance for high school football and a voter-approved plan to build a multiple-use sports complex there.
“I don’t think we are being nearly deliberate enough about this,” Hession said.
Councilman Al French has suggested turning Albi into a regional sports facility by bringing Spokane County into its operation, but county officials have rejected that suggestion, he said.
County officials have expressed interest in buying the stadium and its 89 acres for future development of a park operations facility, county offices and possibly a jail. But city officials said the neighborhood would not endorse a jail. Besides, city officials said, it makes more sense to sell the land into private hands, which would be taxed. The property could hold as many as 700 homes.
French said he still wants to look at options for keeping Albi open. “I haven’t committed to selling yet,” he said.
Mark Anderson, associate superintendent for Spokane Public Schools, said council resistance to selling Albi is good news for the district’s football program.
The district had planned on using the stadium until 2013 and has no current alternative for replacing the 55-year-old facility. Closure could force Spokane high schools to play home games on practice fields without lights during afternoons until a replacement facility could be found.
“We’re certainly open to any solutions,” Anderson said about French’s efforts to keep the facility open.
One idea that surfaced this week is to improve the grandstands area on the east side of the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center to accommodate high school football.
So far, the only council member in favor of the Albi sale is Brad Stark, who had planned to introduce a resolution declaring Albi and its 89 acres of land as surplus private property. Stark said Friday he is holding off on the resolution for now, but he hopes to win support for the proposal within the next few weeks.
A surplus declaration is needed for West and his staff to seek a sale. The council would also have to approve any subsequent sale agreement.
Stark and West have said Albi has become a drain on city revenue at a time when the city is facing $6 million in budget cuts and the potential loss of police and firefighters for 2006, on top of substantial cuts in 2005.
“It’s a football stadium,” Stark said. “Is that more important than police and fire?”
The city’s operating subsidy to Albi is about $100,000 a year, and payments on bonds sold for previous improvements will add $300,000 more to the cost in 2006. Borrowing costs will drop to $170,000 in 2007, city officials said.
On top of that, the field needs new turf in 2007, or earlier, at a cost of at least $750,000. A city estimate put turf replacement at $1.5 million, but Anderson said that “seems high.” Additional improvements of at least $280,000 are needed as well.
City officials estimated the sale would bring $2.3 million, but the city would have to buy out a lease of the stadium held by the Spokane Shadow soccer team and its owner, Bobby Brett. That buyout was negotiated at $450,000.
After the lease is bought out and bonds are paid off, the city would net about $400,000 from the sale.
Closure of Albi would end a plan dating back to 1999 in which voters gave 81 percent approval to a proposal to build a multi-use sports complex on an improved Albi grounds. The city has more than $3.5 million in a reserve account for the project, but parks officials have said that is not enough.
Expansion of facilities at Albi might trigger a need for traffic improvements in the vicinity of Wellesley Avenue and Assembly Street, which would add to the cost of a sports complex.
Councilman Bob Apple suggested the city forgive the cost of traffic improvements to make Albi improvements feasible and to fulfill the wishes of voters.
Dave Pier, vice president of Brett Sports & Entertainment, said saving Albi may no longer be possible because the city has waited too long to make improvements. “The city has convinced us they don’t have the money and the resources to bring the stadium up to the adequate condition it needs to be,” he said.
West said he and members of his administration will provide council members with a briefing of the issues surrounding Albi, and they may be able to persuade them that selling the property is the city’s best option.
“They don’t have all of the facts yet,” West said.