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Condon: Minor-league soccer could come to Spokane with construction of downtown stadium

Mayor David Condon is making the hard sell for a new downtown Spokane sports stadium ahead of school board deliberations Wednesday, a pitch that now includes the possibility of professional soccer.

In addition to new schools, modern libraries and new playfields at the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex, the mayor said this week he’s been exploring an agreement to bring minor-league soccer to Spokane that would be contingent upon construction of a new downtown stadium. The deal would require voter approval of Spokane Public Schools bonds to pay for a new, 5,000-seat facility to replace Joe Albi Stadium, which also would host high school athletics and other community events.

“They are not interested in being in the middle of a big sports complex, it just isn’t in their DNA for soccer,” Condon said. “They want urban fields.”

Condon has been meeting with San Antonio sports executive Howard Cornfield, who most recently has served as general manager for the now-defunct San Antonio Scorpions Football Club of the North American Soccer League. Cornfield said Tuesday that his company, deepRoot Sports & Entertainment, is interested in Spokane and one other city as a potential location for a new soccer franchise.

“The whole thing about soccer these days, is that the fans love meeting at the restaurants,” Cornfield said. “Spokane’s got a great downtown, it’s pretty, you’d be crossing over the river if you had a stadium downtown.”

The new club wouldn’t be affiliated with Major League Soccer, but there are other options for professional soccer in Spokane, including the United Soccer League (home to the Seattle Sounders FC 2 club in Tacoma and the Portland Timbers 2 club) or the Canadian Premier League, which will begin play next year, Cornfield said. Matches would be played on Saturdays, which would leave the field open for Friday night football contests in the fall, Condon said.

At 5,000 seats, the proposed Spokane stadium would be among the smallest hosting USL matches. Teams in Irvine, California; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Fenton, Missouri all have stadiums that hold about 5,000 people. Of the seven confirmed teams for the Canadian Premier League, all of them based in Canada, 5,000 seats is the smallest-sized stadium that will host matches. That league will require a certain percentage of players to be Canadian on each roster and touts itself as “by Canada, for Canada.”

Talks about the potential for a club so far have been quiet, Cornfield said. Mark Anderson, associate superintendent of Spokane Public Schools, said discussions with school board members have focused on potential other uses for the stadium beyond high school athletics, not specifics.

“The sports commission had a study done of the pros and cons of the downsizing Albi,” Anderson said. “The conclusion of that study was that it’s a possibility in the future that there might be some kind of minor league soccer there. They didn’t base their analysis on that.”

School board members directed questions on the proposal to Board President Sue Chapin, though multiple members said they were unaware of the minor league soccer proposal.

Chapin said she hadn’t been informed of the city’s discussions to bring professional soccer to Spokane, either. She said she still has questions about parking for the proposed downtown project.

“We’ve got to focus on what our students need,” Chapin said. “In the end, it will be a group decision.”

She said a downtown stadium “‘might be wonderful” for professional soccer, and if the school board doesn’t decide to ask voters for funding it might be a project the city could explore paying for themselves. The school district could then rent it for football games.

The question of whether to replace Joe Albi Stadium, which opened in 1950 and has been the city’s destination for high school football since, is a remaining sticking point in plans to pitch joint city and school bond issues in the November election. School board members last month said they had concerns about security and traffic at a new downtown facility, which is just part of a proposed $505 million bond issue that would allow the district to build three new middle schools on land owned by the city and renovate existing buildings to make way for sixth-graders beginning in 2021. One of those new middle schools would be built at the current Joe Albi site.

The city plans to float its own $103 million bond issue to build three new libraries, renovate four others and expand playfield options at Merkel.

Condon said the city and schools had a unique opportunity, as a consequence of changes to the way the state is funding basic education, to add services while also reducing the local tax burden on property owners.

“Never before have we seen this type of partnership, between Spokane Public Schools, Spokane libraries, the park system, the Public Facilities District and the city government,” Condon said.

Both sides are pitching the bond as a reinvestment of taxpayer dollars that will be saved as the local tax burden to support schools shifts to the state level. Property taxes supporting schools will go down $2.20 per $1,000 of assessed value in the city of Spokane beginning in 2020. The city and schools will be asking voters to approve a tax on half that amount, $1.10, to pay for all the new facilities.

That will include an expedited update of the school district’s security enhancements, Anderson said. City Councilwoman Karen Stratton said she wanted to see the district stress security enhancements in their pitch for a new bond, given the recent shooting at Freeman High School and the threats at Lewis and Clark High School.

“My question is, can you use any of this money to enhance safety?” Stratton said. “If it can’t be, I’m not going to support it.”

The district has already used its portion of a 2015 bond measure on security features, adding cameras and a single-point-of-entry to buildings, Anderson said. Approving the bond in 2018 will add money that can be used to implement the security recommendations of a firm that will audit the district this fall, he said.

“Otherwise, we were going to have to wait until 2021,” Anderson said. “We could get that funding sooner.”

City Council President Ben Stuckart said he’ll support whatever decision the school board makes on whether to renovate Joe Albi Stadium or move forward with new construction. Both options are on the table for discussion Wednesday afternoon, with a joint meeting between the school board and City Council planned for Aug. 1 to formalize language for the November ballot.

“I like the idea of it downtown,” Stuckart said of the proposal. “I want to keep the focus on the collaborative effort between schools and the city.”

Condon said the school district is “asking all the right questions” about the feasibility of a downtown stadium. He said traffic and parking studies have shown that the area could handle the anticipated volume both at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena and a proposed stadium and sports complex, and pushed back on concerns about security by praising the Public Facilities District’s handling of safety around the arena. The district would operate the new stadium, with the schools as its chief tenant.

“You see the positive stuff that’s going on (downtown),” Condon said. “Remember what was in Riverfront Park five years ago, versus what’s there today. Positive activity supplants negative activity, as far as I can tell.”

Cornfield, the sports executive, has seen a community grapple with whether to build a downtown stadium before. Before his stint in San Antonio, Cornfield served as president and general manager of the Quad City Mallards, a minor league hockey team that played in a facility built in Moline, Illinois.

“Some of the same arguments that I’m hearing now, about building a stadium in Spokane, people were saying that about the arena in Quad Cities,” he said. “Now, 20 or 22 years down the road, no one can imagine what the city would be like without the arena downtown.”

Cornfield said if the agreement worked out, he’d move to Spokane and oversee operations firsthand. He cited the success of the Chiefs and Indians franchises, noting that it was Kerry Toporoski, a former Spokane Chief, who originally sold him on bringing sports to the Inland Northwest. Toporoski played several seasons for the Mallards during Cornfield’s tenure there, and his son, Luke, plays left wing for the Chiefs.

“We wouldn’t be carpetbaggers. We would come there, we would set up operation one year in advance of opening our doors,” he said. “It would be no different than the tremendous way the Bretts have operated the baseball and the hockey team.”