A preliminary plan to reshape governance of the city’s park system would grant city lawmakers and the mayor’s office a greater say in the redevelopment of Riverfront Park.
“The park is just really one of those unique things that has so many stakeholders in the city,” said Rick Romero, the city’s former utilities director who is working on the proposal under a contract with City Hall. “It’s a different animal.”
The idea, which is still in early talks but was shared in a one-page memo with the City Council and the autonomous Spokane Park Board, calls for the creation of what’s known as an “enterprise fund” within the governance structure of the city’s park system.
Doing so would channel any money made in the city’s signature 100-acre downtown attraction back into Riverfront Park, and add two members of Spokane’s City Council and two mayoral appointees to a committee overseeing that money. Their decisions would require approval by a majority of the Park Board, which has operated independently of City Hall for more than 100 years.
Money made at Riverfront Park to date has been spread out throughout the city’s park system.
Park Board President Chris Wright stressed the proposal still is in its early stages and that board members would need several questions to be answered before it moves forward.
“I think right now the proposal doesn’t anticipate the Park Board giving up any ultimate authority,” Wright said. “An enterprise committee would probably be advisory to the park board.”
Romero said the goal was to get more people at City Hall around the table as plans progress on the taxpayer-funded redevelopment of Riverfront Park.
“We all win by working together,” Romero said.
After expressing surprise that early designs for the new U.S. Pavilion included an uncovered structure earlier this summer, City Council President Ben Stuckart said he was exploring ways to ensure more involvement from lawmakers in park planning.
“At least for now, it would get me to the point of (comfort) with having input on this regional asset,” Stuckart said. “I would totally, 100 percent be willing to try this.”
Spokane Parks Director Leroy Eadie said creating an enterprise fund to oversee park operations isn’t a new idea. The 2014 Riverfront Park master plan calls for “further research & study (of) alternative management plans for the park,” and another committee that reports to the Park Board – the panel overseeing urban forestry within Spokane’s park system – includes members representing agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources.
Officials are eyeing changes that would not require altering the city’s charter, which establishes the Park Board’s autonomy and sets its budget at 8 percent of total city government spending out of the general fund each year. Any change to the charter requires a vote of the public.
Eadie said an added benefit of the new system would be to ensure that budgeted dollars go to other city parks, while dedicating revenue within Riverfront Park to funding operations and perhaps financing additional features not covered by the $64.3 million park bond.
“It kind of keeps the park fund focused on the rest of the park system,” Eadie said.
One of the projects that could be funded by revenue is a parking garage on the north Spokane River bank of the park, where planners are exploring placing a regional playground. That area is the last to be designed, but deadlines for completion are rapidly approaching, said Wright, the park board president.
“This is an ideal time to pause, to talk about a parking garage and how would that be financed,” he said.
The 2014 park plan includes mention of a 700-space garage on the north bank, which would locate additional parking near the site of a proposed sports complex. That project remains in limbo. The city likely would have to issue bonds to build a garage, and the creation of an enterprise fund would ensure a stream of income that could be used to pay off the debt.
One question city officials will have to grapple with is what to do with the existing enterprise fund for golf operations, which was established in 1979. That means the city’s four publicly owned golf courses support themselves on fees charged to players.
When the city built its newest course, The Creek at Qualchan, in 1993, green fees grew to pay off the revenue bond that was issued to build, and then again to cover the unexpected additional costs of utilities.
The new enterprise fund could fold golf and Riverfront Park under the same umbrella, or even the city’s trail system, Eadie said. If it did, the Park Board likely would eliminate the two committees currently overseeing golf and the Riverfront Park redevelopment, replacing them with the panel that would include council members and the mayor’s representatives, according to the memo.
But the focus right now is on the park, Eadie said, and approving a new structure this fall would assist the Parks Department in planning its budget for 2018, the first year of operations for the new ice skating ribbon and Looff Carrousel building.
“We’re going to have to work our way through this a little bit,” Eadie said.