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Merkel sports complex opens

$11 million North Side site honors youth sports advocate

LauraLi Gilliam sailed over the mounded dirt of Spokane’s new BMX track on her 20-inch tires, christening the track with a herd of others on Saturday.

The track is one of several new features added in the expansion of the $11 million, 76-acre Dwight Merkel Sports Complex near Joe Albi Stadium in north Spokane. The complex, on North Assembly Street, has six full-size grass soccer fields, two synthetic fields, five softball diamonds, a BMX track, a skate park, a splash pad and walking trails. In 2007, voters passed a park improvement bond that helped finance the expansion of the old facility. Construction started in 2008.

Before this track opened, Gilliam’s family would drive up to an hour just for her to practice.

“It’s amazing. I can practice more and get better now that this track opened,” she said.

Her mother looks forward to watching her daughter race on the track.

“The riders go elbow to elbow – it’s exciting,” Tisha Gilliam said.

Spokane Parks and Recreation Supervisor Mike Aho said that for the past 17 years, Spokane parents and riders looked for a way to get a BMX track. In 2007 they saw their opportunity with plans for the expanded sports complex. BMX enthusiasts collaborated on the design with ex-professional riders, the parks department, and some experts from the Cherry Hill BMX track in Coeur d’Alene, Aho said.

The course has a 16-foot high, $90,000 concrete hill. At the top of the hill is a hydraulic starting gate that will be used to host BMX races, Aho said.

On the other side of the complex, skateboarders glided over ridges and rails and what 21-year-old Bernard Quaid called “a gnarly bowl.” The bowl is a deep, rounded ravine where expert skaters circle at high speeds, sometimes sliding up to the edge for a momentary pause before plunging down again. If a skater accomplishes a trick, the other skaters may tap their boards against the concrete in a type of applause.

“This park puts Spokane on the map for skating. And it keeps skaters out of the public’s way,” Quaid said.

The complex’s namesake, Dwight Merkel, was a youth sports advocate who dedicated more than half of his life in service to the Spokane Youth Sports Association, Spokane Parks and Recreation and the Greater Spokane Sports Association. Merkel introduced youth soccer to Spokane and worked to keep fees low to attract thousands of Spokane children in learning sportsmanship and skills. Merkel died of cancer in 1997 at age 55.

Merkel, along with volunteers, friends and grants, made the original sports facility possible.

“We lived a few miles away from the north complex, and Dwight walked the dog over every night to check the sprinklers,” said Sharon Strand, Merkel’s wife of 19 years. She said Merkel would have been thrilled about the sprinkler system at the new complex.

“Dwight never had children of his own, but he had thousands,” Strand said. “He was dedicated to his community and family.”