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Paddlers want river access at Convention Center

The voter-approved $65 million project to expand the Spokane Convention Center involves the  Centennial Trail and shoreline improvements. Designs are set to be approved in 2013.</p>
The voter-approved $65 million project to expand the Spokane Convention Center involves the Centennial Trail and shoreline improvements. Designs are set to be approved in 2013.

Apparently no kayakers or rafters were allowed into the main flow of planning for the Spokane Convention Center expansion project.

Paddling access to the Spokane River is doubtful under project proposals to be publicly revealed this week.

The voter-approved $65 million project involves the Convention Center, Centennial Trail and Spokane Arena.

Paddling groups have been working for years to develop the Spokane River’s potential as a world-class water trail and urban fishery. But they fear the new construction will shut them out of an important river access site at the Division Street Bridge.

Paddlers using the river from Upriver Dam downstream past Gonzaga University have for years pulled out boats under Division Street and hauled them to vehicles parked at the former C.I. Shenanigans restaurant.

The Shenanigans building will be demolished to ready the site for the expansion project.

Spokane Public Facilities District officials will display project designs from three contractors in an open house on Thursday. They want to hear public comment before the board makes a final decision.

“Paddlers have been there every step of the way,” said Celene Olgeirsson, president of the Spokane Canoe & Kayak Club. “We’ve had understandings only to see them get brushed away.

“Every possible access point on the Spokane River is important because there are so few available.”

Kevin Twohig, district CEO, said all three designs he saw for the first time on Wednesday “dramatically improve public access to the river” via the Centennial Trail, streets and the Convention Center facilities.

However, he said, “We’re not talking about boats. Our shoreline permit does not allow anybody to enter the river until they get to the east side of the Division Street Bridge.”

He said a Spokane city ordinance prohibits floating the river west of the bridge because of dangerous currents that could sweep boats toward Spokane Falls and Avista utilities hydropower facilities.

Rick Eichstaedt of the Spokane Riverkeeper and Center for Justice said legitimate safety concerns have been raised about boat access near Division at high water.

“Quite a few people don’t understand the power and danger of the river in that area,” he said, “but for two-thirds of the year, the water there is slack. With signage and seasonal river closures, access could be worked out.

“We’ve been commenting through the process that access is needed and possible.”

Eichstaedt, a lawyer, said the city prohibits boats beyond the east side of the bridge. “Seems like an easy fix is to make it the west line of the bridge so the boat access could be under the bridge,” he said.

Avista officials have long had concerns about river safety in the area. However, officials have acknowledged the potential for river access at Division Street.

“We along with other river groups are concerned about the lack of vehicle access so people can drive near the river to load and unload their gear,” said Speed Fitzhugh, Avista’s Spokane River license manager.

“We’ve been very upfront from the get-go that we’d support a designed access site directly under the bridge.”

Access would have to be contingent on seasonal closures, he said. Boaters would need to be kept out of the river upstream from Division Street during spring runoff to prevent anyone from getting swept under the bridge and into the dam forebay, he said.

Avista spokeswoman Jessie Wuerst noted the SPFD is doing the planning for the project and city officials make river rules.

“We’re a partner in the river, we don’t control it,” she said.