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Raceway purchase stalls park plan

Spokane County’s purchase of a West Plains racetrack may have put the expansion of a community park on hold.

Plans to seek state grants for the expansion of Bidwell Park were axed because county commission Chairwoman Bonnie Mager says she was told the county lacked the money needed for the local spending match. Mager said county CEO Marshall Farnell told her the county should hold off on spending on Bidwell because of the raceway acquisition.

“I probably could have forced a discussion on it, but I was caught off guard,” said Mager, who opposed the county’s purchase of the raceway and withdrew the $500,000 grant application for Bidwell Park. “I thought, well, OK, there’s no money, so we can’t do it.”

County Commissioners Todd Mielke and Mark Richard said they were unaware of a connection between pulling the item from the agenda and purchasing the raceway. Farnell was out of town Tuesday and could not be reached for elaboration.

Richard said the attempt to apply for the state money appeared rushed and that more time was needed to perform “due diligence.”

“We had just found out about it a week before and we hadn’t budgeted for it,” said Richard, accusing Mager of trying to continue politicizing the raceway acquisition.

The county was the high bidder for 315 acres of land, including the raceway, in an auction on April 10. The sale still must be approved by a court.

Richard and Mielke said depending on when the sale is approved by the court, they remain hopeful the raceway will be reopened this year.

On Tuesday, commissioners voted to use bonds for the $4.4 million it needs to buy the raceway. Mager cast a dissenting vote.

County Parks Director Doug Chase said if there was a county parks grant application that was likely to be set aside, it was the one for Bidwell.

That’s because the county would have faced strong competition for the state money and the department was proposing to offer an $800,000 match to be more competitive.

Chase said Bidwell remains a priority. Bidwell is home to the county’s North Side Aquatic Center, 18120 N. Hatch Road. Although the pool has become a popular attraction, much of the 20-acre site remains undeveloped.

“Some of the better projects that we have, have taken many years to accomplish,” Chase said.

Tina Wynecoop, who was active in efforts to design the park, said the rapidly growing area needs a place for kids to play.

“We should take care of what we’ve already started,” said Wynecoop, who has made a $50 contribution to the campaign of Dr. Kim Thorburn, who is running for Mielke’s commissioner seat.

Mielke and Richard said the raceway project hasn’t taken away from other county projects.

The fear that the raceway would divert county spending from Avista Stadium, where the Spokane Indians play, spurred Spokane Indians officials to e-mail members of the media before the auction. They argued that commissioners shouldn’t make a bid unless they first made sure they had money to complete renovations at Avista Stadium.

“It has become clear to us from conversations with the county that funding for completion of the improvements at the county’s baseball stadium (Avista Stadium) will be more difficult if the County buys Raceway Park,” Andrew Billig, president of the ball club, said in the e-mail.

Since then, however, Billig said the team has been assured by commissioners that they are committed to investing in the renovations even with raceway expenses.

“We are not against Raceway Park in any way, shape or form,” Billig said. “We just want to make sure the county’s baseball stadium is not hurt in the process.”

A $4 million rehabilitation paid for by the state is expected to be completed in June. Billig said an additional $4.2 million is needed to update bathrooms, concessions and offices and fix other problems. The team is willing to pay a portion of that.

The Indians’ contract to use the stadium runs out after 2009 and the team hopes to negotiate a longer stay. Billig said a county commitment to finish stadium improvements is essential for the club to make a long-term commitment.

Richard said he believes the county should pay for at least a portion of the needed stadium improvements.

“I’m committed to making sure it’s safe and it meets health standards and that it remains a viable ballpark for decades to come,” Richard said.

Members of the county’s parks advisory committee were briefed on the raceway.

Ralph Stearns, chairman of the advisory committee, said he believes the purchase will enhance recreation opportunities.

“I firmly believe that recreation for all types of people is important for the county and future generations,” Stearns said.

Parks advisory member Lunell Haught said she’s reserving judgment on the purchase to see if funding for the raceway affects other parks functions.

“Speaking for myself I’m in a wait-and-see mode,” Haught said.

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