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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Sunday, March 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Most recent Playfair sale compounds city’s losses

Officials contend land better back on tax rolls

The legacy of Playfair Race Course is on display at the commercial park that took its place, as blue steel silhouettes of horse and jockey appear to race across the park’s entryway.

Another legacy of the racetrack remains at Spokane City Hall, this one in red ink.

Eleven years after it purchased the defunct racetrack for $6.3 million, the city of Spokane retains just 5 acres of the original 63. The other 58 acres it sold to Spokane-based silo and steel stud manufacturer SCAFCO Corp. for about $2.4 million in two separate deals.

One way to look at it: The city paid $3.9 million for the few acres it still owns.

The most recent sale of some city-owned Playfair land was last week, when the City Council approved the sale of more than 10 acres to SCAFCO for about $300,000. The land was valued at $764,000, but SCAFCO agreed to build a public street and a 2-acre “natural stormwater area,” leading to the discount.

City officials contend the equation is not that simple and defend the collapsed sale price as a function of the changing ideas of how to use the property, the recession and a bum deal made in 2004. And they say holding on to the land until its value matches what the city paid a decade ago would be unwise.

Still, they acknowledge the situation is far from ideal.

“We’re selling it for a price that we’re able to get today. Surely we would’ve liked to sell it for as much as we paid for it but that’s not possible,” utilities spokeswoman Marlene Feist said. “We can hold on to it and it can sit there and not do anything. Or we can sell it, put it back on the tax rolls and make it productive again.”

Councilman Mike Allen also defended the sale, but said the original purchase was “ill-advised” for the city not only to buy the land but also “to pay that much for the property.”

“It makes no sense to hold on to it,” he said. “We never want to take a loss, but the reality is if we had held on to it till it made a profit, we might be looking at a new millennium.”

When the city purchased the land in 2004, Mayor Jim West had pushed for the deal as a potential site for a sewage treatment plant owned jointly with the county, even though no official agreement had been made between the entities. When the county made clear that it would not build a plant there, West said he was considering closing Albi Stadium and building a softball sports complex on Playfair. That idea fell through, too.

After West fell victim to a recall election, council members began questioning the Playfair purchase. Just two days after West’s recall in 2005, at a crowded Thursday afternoon council meeting, then-Councilwoman Mary Verner asked, “When are we putting Playfair back on the tax rolls again?”

It took another four years for that question to be answered. In 2008, the city wanted $5.1 million for 48 acres at Playfair, and SCAFCO agreed to buy it – as long as the city paid for road and other improvements on the land. The city refused and the deal fell through, but a year later, in the depths of the recession in 2009, SCAFCO bought 48 acres in Playfair from the city for $2.1 million. The company, which employs 250 people in the Spokane area, agreed to pay for the site’s improvements.

Since then, the company has raised buildings, paved roads and relocated its headquarters to the site. Calls to SCAFCO were not returned.

The city built an evaporation pond for sediment caught in the city’s catch basins, but as plans for treating stormwater changed, the city decided it needed just 5 of the 15 acres it still owned, leading to last week’s sale. Originally, the city planned to put a large combined sewage overflow tank at the site to prevent wastewater from flowing into the Spokane River when the sewage system gets overburdened during rain.

“We don’t need that,” Feist said. “Some of the volume that we anticipated there went to a couple of other tanks.”

Despite the loss of city money, Allen said he stands behind the land sale, especially considering what’s been done to the site since 2009.

“There’s been millions of dollars of investments on that property,” Allen said. “We have a new commerce park out there.”

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