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Saturday, April 4, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Then and now: Construction, redesign of Riverfront Park

In the early 1960s, business and city leaders believed that Spokane needed something to bring it out of its funk. The economy was stagnant. Railroads were still shipping, but passenger service had declined. The downtown seemed dingy and industrial. Culturally, Spokane seemed stuck in the past.

King Cole, hired by the booster group Spokane Unlimited, championed the idea of a world’s fair, but most people were skeptical.

Would the Bureau International des Expositions in Paris award the annual fair to a place like Spokane, the smallest city ever to host such a fair? Where would the money come from?

And the biggest question: How could the city get the railroads to move their infrastructure so the area around the falls and the river could be renovated into a parklike landscape?

Organizer Cole, knowing there was no money to pay for it, asked the railroads to estimate the cost of removing the rails and moving all traffic to the rail corridor between First and Second avenues.

With chins held high and their pockets empty, delegations of boosters visited railroad headquarters in Minneapolis and New York City, asking, cajoling and pleading with railroad executives to make it happen. During these negotiations, the four main rail companies merged into two, and after many months of negotiations, the companies relented.

The business community reluctantly endorsed a small-business and occupations tax of $5.7 million to underwrite the changes.

The transformation of the area started around 1970, but as the date came closer, the work seemed endless, and most of those peering through the fence at the progress could not imagine that it would open on time.

But on May 4, 1974, President Richard Nixon declared the fair to be open, and millions came to Spokane to visit. Before the summer’s end, the embattled president had resigned, but Spokane had gained a new national, perhaps international, standing.

Today, the space is being redesigned again to update the facilities and reconfigure the public spaces, paid for with a $64.3 million bond issue. The construction will continue over the next two years.

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