The first major renovation of Riverfront Park in decades is a step away from being sent to voters for approval.
The Spokane Park Board approved the 2014 Riverfront Park Master Plan along with its accompanying funding package in a special session on Friday. The plan, which encompasses $40 million to $50 million in park improvements, would be funded by a voter-approved bond measure on the Nov. 4 ballot.
The plan would focus on “reversing the decay” of park bridges and irrigation systems and creating new amenities in the 40-year-old downtown park, board President Randy Cameron said at a media briefing.
“Many of the facilities are outdated and fallen into disrepair, and in some cases been forced to close,” Cameron said. “The park is more than showing its age.”
City Council President Ben Stuckart also appeared at the briefing, which took place in front of the park’s Rotary Fountain. He touted the park plan as an economic benefit and “important investment for the future of Riverfront Park and our city as a whole.”
The park is Spokane’s No. 1 tourist attraction, he said, bringing in 2.2 million visitors each year.
“Parks are economic generators,” Stuckart said. “Increased tourism allows us to spend more money on our fire department, our schools, our libraries and the rest of our park system.”
Work on the master plan began in March 2013 when a group of 23 volunteers began meeting monthly to draft ideas for a revitalized park.
“We are inspired by Expo ’74’s leaders and visionaries,” who turned a railroad-choked riverfront into the city’s centerpiece, Cameron said. He said the committee heard from more than 1,000 citizens during the public process.
The final plan, which is divided into seven spending categories, calls for a relocated ice rink and a new pedestrian promenade that would provide more access to the park’s center and main attractions. It also includes $24 million of renovations and upgrades for the Pavilion.
To address security concerns, the plan calls for improved lighting, emergency phones and more security patrols.
During the board session Friday, members acknowledged the ambition of the plan and discussed how best to present the proposal to voters. While the board’s approval of the bond measure was unanimous, board member Preston Potratz dissented on the park’s master plan, which passed 10-1.
Potratz expressed concern that the plan wasn’t vetted enough by outside experts.
“We’re all sitting here today because somebody in Spokane was smart enough to hire a nationally renowned landscape design firm to establish our park system,” Potratz said in explaining his ‘no’ vote. “What we have is a collection of ideas that may or may not work. We don’t have a ‘master plan.’ ”
He added the plan still doesn’t have a “wow” factor.
“I’m still lacking this piece of the master plan that’s really going to make people come to the park, that really does something different than what it already is,” he said.
Other board members who voted for the plan shared some reservations on not having the “big idea” fully drawn out but thought it could come from the public process before November.
“I think we have a commitment not to gloss over your concerns between now and November, and we can get there,” Cameron said.
Cameron said the bond proposal, which is based on the master plan, includes several features he believes will inspire “wow” – especially a plan to re-cover the U.S. Pavilion, turn it into a venue for concerts and special events like Hoopfest and light it at night, perhaps like the Sydney Opera House.
“We dedicated $24 million for that structure,” Cameron said. “There is no question that that will be iconic.”
Other members were concerned the plan might not bring in the revenue it expects to fund operations. But board member Ross Kelley, a former park board president, said an economic bump will come from attracting people from other areas.
“We’re not making money on it now,” Kelley said. “But we do deserve to put a decent facility there so that the people who use that beautiful park are enjoying it the way they want to.”
Kelley added that the bond proposal is a creative way to make substantial improvements.
“This is a good deal for the public and the taxpayers,” he said. “If it were a brand new thing that we were dumping on people, I probably wouldn’t be in favor of it.”
The City Council is expected to decide next month if it will ask voters for the park bond and for a 20-year street levy. City officials argue that by refinancing old voter-approved debt for parks and streets at lower interest rates and stretching payments on the old debt for more years, voters would see substantial park and street improvements for an annual cost that would be the same amount they will pay this year for voter-approved park and street taxes.
Through refinancing debt payments, the city is using tax money equal to the 91 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value – $91 on a property worth $100,000 – residents already pay for existing streets and park bonds.
“This is government at its best, creating investments at no additional costs to the taxpayers,” Stuckart said at the briefing.
Cameron said the park bond portion of the ballot would ask voters for a $64.3 million bond. About two-thirds will pay for new construction and renovations. The rest would pay off old debt, mainly a 2007 voter-approved park bond that mostly was used to rebuild the city’s swimming pools. A 1999 park bond will be paid off at the end of this year. That means that if the park bond is rejected, voter-approved park taxes will decrease next year.