When Judy and Gary Wentling drive by Browns Park in the evening, the sand volleyball courts are a hive of activity.
“They are busy every evening with a lot of – I would say, at least three dozen or four dozen – young people,” Judy Wentling said.
As their grandchildren “blow off steam” at the neighborhood park, the couple said they can see a wider community benefit to expanding the courts.
City Council is considering a proposal that would do just that. The Browns Park master plan seeks to install 16 tournament-quality sand volleyball courts in the northeast section of the 8.2-acre park. The plan proposes $2 million of renovations for the park, located at the corner of South Pines Road and East 32nd Avenue, to upgrade “old and limited” park facilities as well as turn it into a destination for tournament play, said Spokane Valley Parks and Recreation Director Mike Stone.
“It’s obvious to us there’s a strong user group out there that would benefit,” he said, noting the nearest outdoor sand volleyball facility is in Seattle. A renovated park could also drive out some recent reports of vandalism and drug use.
Council members heard public comment on Tuesday from more than a dozen volleyball advocates and neighborhood residents. The Evergreen Region Volleyball Association, one of the largest of 40 geographic regions affiliated with USA Volleyball, does not currently have an outdoor venue of the scope proposed in the master plan, said ERVA commissioner Meredith Coupland. The regional group encompasses Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Montana.
Supporters of the plan told the council the demand was so high that local leagues have had to turn people away. Volleyball league participants at Browns Park reached 450 this year, Coupland said.
“We actually have a wait list this year for several events,” Coupland said. “Court expansion for us is an important part of programming and growing the game.”
Proponents pitched the economic benefits of having a venue that could host tournament play – attracting, Stone said, “people that would be staying in hotels and eating at restaurants and shopping.”
Since its introduction in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, sand volleyball has boomed in popularity, and Spokane, in particular, is seen as a hotspot training ground for junior volleyball players, said ERVA board member Kevin Twohig.
“We’re already seeing teams coming from Montana and Idaho to play here,” he said. “Volleyball tourism is very real.”
The plan expands the park’s two existing parking lots to 119 spaces, which Stone said would likely not be sufficient to host large events. The city hopes to use parking at University High School across the street as an overflow lot.
Some neighborhood residents questioned who would pay for the renovations and expressed concerns that increased traffic would create hazards at an intersection already choked with inexperienced high school drivers.
Stone said funding decisions are typically determined after the plan’s approval, but he expects private donations to be the main driver for the courts. He added that there’s the potential for the city and ERVA to come to an agreement that would require the volleyball association to maintain the courts.
Council members, who will offer official comments on the proposal at the July 8 meeting, largely agreed there was a need for a large volleyball venue. But they said they were on the fence and wondered if another property would be better suited.
“Most people agree that this is a very good thing if we can take care of the details on it,” said Councilman Bill Bates, adding he’s heard concerns about losing the park’s softball diamond under the new proposal.
Stone acknowledged the master plan would have to strike a balance between two primary user groups: the volleyball league and the neighborhood users.
Stone said the park’s area would be almost evenly divided and self-contained: 3 acres would go for the new courts, 3 acres for the neighborhood improvements and the remaining 2 acres for parking.
“It’s a pretty good balance of space,” he said.
Neighborhood improvements include two new leasable picnic shelters and new play equipment with a tot lot and splash pad. The plan would also convert existing sand courts in the southwest corner of the park into a basketball court and slackline course.
A new perimeter walking path would divide the two main uses, according to the plan’s sketches.