The biggest, and quite possibly the best, athletic venue in Spokane may surprise you.
It’s not Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center or Joe Albi Stadium. It’s not the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena or Avista Stadium. Though those are all nice, well-maintained facilities that represent Spokane well.
It’s the city’s downtown.
Yep, that amalgamation of streets, parking lots, buildings and the occasional tree.
It’s home to Spokane’s two most iconic yearly sporting events, Bloomsday and Hoopfest. And it really should be home to more – but we’ll get to that, hopefully before your parking meter runs out.
Could Bloomsday, would Bloomsday, be the world’s largest timed road race if it didn’t begin and end among the man-made canyons around Riverside and Main?
And would Hoopfest have grown from its humble beginnings if it weren’t played on downtown’s streets?
Rick Betts, the man with the brilliant idea that grew into the monster that is today’s Hoopfest, doesn’t think so.
When Betts, who happens to work in one of downtown’s largest buildings, came up with the idea of Spokane’s 3-on-3 basketball tournament with a decade left in the 20th century, he realized early on it had to be downtown.
For many reasons.
“The most interesting reason to have it there,” he said recently, “is (downtown) is the least likely place you would hold a sporting event like Hoopfest.
“Why would you do that?”
Betts knew the answer to his question was contained within that age-old real estate adage about location.
“Because of all the restaurants, the shopping and options of things to do between games,” he said, “it becomes a much more desirable location.”
Eric Sawyer, CEO and president of the Spokane Sports Commission, which works to bring athletic events to the area, agrees.
“Spokane has a vibrant downtown that makes for an attractive sports venue,” he said, not only referring to participatory events like Hoopfest but also the spectator ones at the Arena and Convention Center as well. “We have found we have a marketing advantage over many other cities when we propose any of the downtown venues for events.”
Hoopfest could have been played under the freeway. Or in parking lots. Or even at a local college. Such were the spots reserved for most tournaments in 1998.
But after observing a tournament held on the sterile – and hot – blacktop of Seattle’s Kingdome parking lot, Betts knew such a location wouldn’t fly here.
So downtown it would be.
“It’s a fun backdrop,” Betts said. “When you have buildings on both sides, it’s almost like you are playing in an arena.”
Of course, Hoopfest wasn’t the first participatory event based downtown.
That honor, in a big way, goes to Bloomsday.
When Don Kardong gathered together more than 1,000 of his disciples for a run the first Sunday of May 1977, the race headed west out of downtown. And ran into history.
Kardong’s vision quickly grew into the world’s largest timed race. As many as 61,298 folks have registered. And all of them experience Spokane’s downtown.
That experience plays out in the cold of the morning in the shadow of the buildings and finishes in the – usually – warmer sun at Riverfront Park.
But not this year.
Bloomsday and Hoopfest have had to evolve to deal with the park’s multimillion-dollar remodel, which is actually a positive.
“The park (remodel) certainly has created a big challenge for us,” said Hoopfest Executive Director Matt Santangelo. “Not all bad. Hoopfest is such a large battleship that, if you make any changes, people notice them. (And ask), ‘What did you do that for? We’ve been doing it this way for 25 years.’
“This gives a chance to try some things. Some will work really well, some won’t.”
With the park construction, Hoopfest’s center court is moving south across Spokane Falls Boulevard.
The size of the event – and the construction of the Grand Hotel – made it necessary a few years ago to move north of the river, into the Arena’s parking lot and outside the core.
“There is a challenge for us to keep that connected to, quote-unquote, Hoopfest downtown,” Santangelo said.
Santangelo knows you can’t separate Hoopfest from downtown, not that the former Gonzaga star guard would want to.
“That’s really part of the charm, and the attraction for teams that keep coming back, year over year, because it was so unique,” Santangelo said. “There is really nothing like it, that a city would literally shut down in order to accomplish a 3-on-3 streetball tournament.”
In fact, if Betts had his way, there would be more integration.
He envisions a nearly two-month recreational celebration, starting with Bloomsday (held the first Sunday in May) and ending with Hoopfest (the last weekend in June), during which more events of their ilk would be held downtown.
He knows there would be pushback – just as there was when Hoopfest blossomed in the early 1990s and the downtown business community initially struggled with limited customer access on a summer weekend.
As he sees it, however, the long-term potential is worth the short-term logistical problems.
“As we build a reputation as a recreational center, we have to facilitate those choices,” Betts said, pointing out that the growth of living space downtown and the soon-to-be-new-look Riverfront Park make it an even more desirable location. “This is the kind of stuff we should be encouraging.”
Maybe such ideas aren’t as far-fetched as they were in the mid-1970s, when Kardong hatched his Bloomsday idea.
Riverfront Park’s footprint is expanding north. The Convention Center actively hunts for more participatory sporting events. And, according to Sawyer, there is a mechanism in place to deal with conflicts: the Downtown Spokane Partnership.
“Sometimes events can be a challenge, like trying to close streets for an event,” Betts said. “The partnership takes a proactive approach and helps us work through the process.
“In talking to my peers from other communities, this is not always the case with their downtown associations.”
Maybe it’s because no one else has quite the same venue. It’s certain no one has utilized it the same way.
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