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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Plans to revitalize Riverfront Park underway

Parts of Riverfront Park are majestic, beloved, historic, popular or whimsical.

But parts of Riverfront Park are broken, dilapidated, vacant, stuck in the wrong century or losing money.

As the city approaches the 40th anniversary of Expo ’74, city leaders are planning a major renovation and upgrade to the city’s central gathering spot. Part of the goal is simply to fix broken or outdated infrastructure, the leaking roofs, failing bridges and bumpy pathways. But officials also want to make changes to attract more people and revenue.

The Spokane Park Board approved the first phase of the plan last summer, setting broad goals. Among them, the board determined that the U.S. Pavilion structure should be maintained, as should the basic layout of the park with attractions dispersed in multiple locations. But many specifics will be determined by the newly created Riverfront Park Citizens Advisory Committee, which is meeting through early next year to recommend final details. 

The goal is a revitalized park, paid for at least in part by a property tax considered by voters in November 2014. The concept so far has broad support from elected leaders, including Mayor David Condon.

“We say it’s the soul of our community and our region, but it’s not as soulful as it can be,” said Ted McGregor, the owner and publisher of the Inlander, who is leading the committee.

Park officials have said the park bond could be as high as $50 million, but McGregor said it’s too early to estimate a figure.

Much of the plan likely will focus on improving what already exists. Among the questions that will be answered:

• Should the Great Northern Clocktower be opened to the public to enjoy its magnificent view?

• Should the gondola be extended to the Convention Center?

• Should the remaining butterfly sculptures be restored or removed?

• Should the building housing the Looff Carrousel be renovated or replaced, and what should it look like?

But there are a few ideas emerging that would be significant changes.

One that’s been floated for several years is to restore a pathway where Howard Street used to be. The idea is to create a grand pedestrian pathway to more easily direct people to downtown from the Spokane Arena or the U.S. Pavilion. It could also be used for community events like Pig Out in the Park or farmers markets.

Another is to move ice skating from under the Pavilion to a more natural setting, perhaps in the field adjacent to City Hall near the Bloomsday running statues. Park Director Leroy Eadie suggested it could be a mini version of the Boston Common Frog Pond.

There are several ideas for unused parkland on the north bank of the river. One with the most traction currently is a proposal by the Spokane Sports Commission to build a field house, including an ice arena, that would house basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and several other indoor sports.

With the Park Board on record that the U.S. Pavilion will survive, the highest-profile debate may become whether it should be covered again.

The original white covering from Expo ’74 shredded in Spokane winters. Eadie said he believes new, stronger materials could be used to cover it, allowing it to be lit and make a larger focal point.

Rides under it currently could stay, be eliminated or moved to another part of the park, perhaps on the north bank.

If the mostly unused Spokane Story building were removed along with the rides and Ice Palace, the Pavilion could become a venue for music and special events, such as Hoopfest’s main court.

For all the park’s successes there have been failures that serve as cautionary tales. When the land for Expo ’74 officially reopened as Riverfront Park in 1978, its main attraction was “Spokane Story,” a 13-act interactive history museum that was likened by its promoters to Disneyland. The city spent more than $2 million on the attraction, but it was a flop, closing after three seasons. Though many artifacts were auctioned off, some props remain and have been collecting dust for nearly 30 years.

Councilman Mike Allen, a member of the committee, said the park is tired and in need of serious investment, but revitalization can’t stress the park department’s operating budget.

“It has to be financially sustainable, and it has to be managed to be financially sustainable.”

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