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Vestal: Refurbished, revitalized park should be busy all the time

Fri., June 27, 2014, midnight

A question for Hoopfest weekend: Shouldn’t we have more events, big and small, in and around Riverfront Park?

A group of local citizens who developed a master plan for the park think so. “In time,” they argued in a summary of the plan, “the goal should be to have events happening in the Park all the time.”

That’s the long view. More immediately, we’ve seen a very distinct picture recently of the possibilities that arise from events in and around the park – the big overwhelming splash of Hoopfest, preceded by a smaller but perhaps more important combination of arts and community events the prior weekend. That combination and variety – basketball, art, music, food – illustrates the potential for culture and community in expanding events in and around the park.

The master plan is a vision of a renovated and re-energized park, a once-in-a-generation opportunity for which Mayor David Condon’s administration has devised a smart and virtually painless method of financing. Most of the discussion so far has been appropriately targeted on park renovations, potential costs and political process. But one sliver of the master plan – two pages in a 99-page document – shines a light on how much more we could do in terms of hosting events in a revitalized park.

The park now hosts about 45 events a year, with an estimated attendance of 218,750. The master plan suggests increasing that number to between 120 and 145, and nearly tripling that attendance figure, to 598,550. To do that, the plan proposes a wide variety of potential events, large and small, to illustrate how a fuller calendar would bring more activity to the park.

But park officials and community members aren’t waiting around. Last weekend was Bazaar, an utterly de-stodgified art market hosted on Wall Street by the organizers of the annual arts extravaganza Terrain. Local artists hawked their wares and performed; the prices were low, the work was fresh, odd, edgy and, vitally, rooted in this place; the vibe was friendly and community-oriented. It was another triumph of the sort that Spokane is suddenly rich with – one driven by engaged young people.

That event was not in the park, of course, but it spilled over in that direction – just as the events in the park spilled back over to it. There was the 40th birthday party for the garbage goat, and a radio festival of some sort by the clock tower, and prep work on building center court for Hoopfest, and crowds riding the kiddie rides at the Pavilion. It was a great first day of summer.

That’s the kind of stuff that Sam Song, the park’s acting director, envisions. Big, center-of-gravity events like Hoopfest and Pig Out have a certain dominating presence; they’re great but you can’t do them all the time. A larger number of smaller events, in combination, helps build longer-term vibrancy.

To really do this on the scale envisioned in the master plan would require investing in repairing and revamping the park. This obviously includes some of the major proposals in the plan – such as creating a north-south promenade through the park and refurbishing the pavilion – but it also includes smaller, less noticeable improvements such as improving access to water and power.

“Events can happen in all parts of the park,” Song said. “The park is big enough to host three or four small meeting-sized events (at a time) if we have the power and water structure.”

Not all progress on this front must wait on the master plan. Song and others are having discussions about bringing a small farmers market to Post Street between the park and City Hall. It’s crazy that we don’t have a farmers market in the park. Song said he’s hopeful that by next year, a “mini-market” could be in place, with potential expansion beyond that.

Of course, wishing for more events and actually making it possible to have them are two different things. Depending on the number and size of events, hosting them can be costly and require more staffing. The park has the potential to host a great many events, from concerts to food festivals, and the future possibilities on this front will be tied closely to whether voters sign off on the financing proposal they find on the ballot this fall.

That proposal would provide $60 million for major renovations in the park and $25 million for further street work, and it would do this by refinancing current debt – and keeping taxes just where they are. It seems to me we’d be foolish not to do this, but I’d be surprised if some kind of opposition didn’t rear its head. Perhaps Duane Alton will weigh in.

But it seems to me the folks on the master plan advisory board got it right. We should refurbish and revitalize the park. And we should have events there all the time.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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