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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Downtown Spokane sportsplex could be built without a voter-approved bond, officials say

FILE - Public Facilities District CEO Kevin Twohig stands on the parking lot on Dean St., on the south border of Riverfront Park, and talks about the idea of a sports complex in October 2015. Officials are exploring ways of paying for the facility without asking voters to raise taxes. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Construction of a new sports complex in downtown Spokane could proceed without a single vote being cast.

City officials are exploring a potential partnership for the long-planned project that could raise up to $30 million without asking Spokane County voters to raise taxes. Rick Romero, the former Spokane utilities director who rejoined the city last year to handle special projects, presented what he called “a very preliminary” plan to the Spokane Park Board last week that could allow the long-discussed project to move forward.

“Getting something going now is phenomenally important,” Romero said.

The proposal combines an anticipated sales tax rebate, made available to public facilities districts specifically for the development of qualifying projects, and taxes collected on hotel and motel rooms to finance at least part of the new complex.

Previously, politicians and representatives of the Spokane Public Facilities District, the Spokane Sports Commission and other agencies had looked at a bond measure, put to voters, as a way to cover the full cost of construction.

The new facility would be built on a 5-acre plot just north of Riverfront Park near Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena; initial plans include basketball and volleyball courts, as well as a 200-meter track that could be lifted with hydraulics from beneath the complex’s floor and an ice arena. The ice rink would be built to NHL specifications, with seating for 1,000 people.

Romero said some of the amenities may need to be scaled back if there’s no bond issue before voters, and the project may be built in phases. In its early plans, the Public Facilities District has estimated costs at around $42 million.

“We could at least get going with the first phase: the field house portion,” said Romero, referring to the basketball and volleyball courts. “That’s the one piece everyone seems to be completely on board with.”

Removing the ice rink from the design would limit the facility’s potential revenue, according to a 2015 feasibility study produced by the Florida-based Sports Facilities Advisory. That report indicated about half – 47 percent – of the sportsplex’s earnings would come from ice rentals.

Romero noted that the feasibility study indicates the money earned within the facility is dwarfed by the potential indirect economic spending on shopping and overnight hotel stays in Spokane. According to the study, the complex would generate $23 million in economic activity in its fifth year of operations.

Eric Sawyer, president and chief executive of the Sports Commission, said the tourism opportunities for youth sports are growing nationwide, and Spokane should act quickly to receive the benefits.

“We just want to be on that bandwagon,” Sawyer said. “We want to be ahead of it, if we can.”

Kevin Twohig, chief executive of the facilities district, said talks with Spokane County about sponsoring a ballot measure fell through earlier this year as officials began discussing ways to dig out of an anticipated $10 million budget shortfall. In July, commissioners considered adding a property tax increase to the ballot this fall, but later withdrew that measure over concerns the burden on taxpayers would be too great.

“This has been relatively recent,” Twohig said of talks with the city of Spokane. “We’d been working with the county for a couple of years, and we’ve been working with the city for a couple of months.”

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said he was pleased the project could move forward, despite the lack of a ballot measure.

“The project’s located in the city. If they can have the capacity to build it and fund it, that’s terrific,” French said.

Funding for major projects by the Public Facilities District, including the construction of the Spokane Arena and improvements at the Spokane Convention Center, have typically been submitted to voters for approval because new tax guarantees were needed to pay for them. Sawyer said it was important for the Sports Commission to demonstrate the value of a new facility and get several partners on board to help finance the project.

“You can’t take a facility like this, and finance it, and put it on any one organization or one municipality,” Sawyer said.

The facilities district will be able to put up $15 million toward the project because of action by the state Legislature this summer to extend a sales tax rebate an additional 15 years, Twohig said.. The mechanism allows the district to capture a share of sales taxes that normally would go to state coffers.

The district anticipates revenue of $40 million over that period, but half of that money has already been dedicated to renovation of the INB Performing Arts Center scheduled for next year.

“Having the rebate will allow us to actually come to the table with the resources ready to make it happen,” Twohig said.

Romero took the idea to the Spokane Park Board because of the property’s proximity to the work in Riverfront Park. The city has promised park land on the north bank to help build the sports complex, but is also finalizing plans for that area of the park as part of Riverfront Park’s $64 million, taxpayer-funded redevelopment.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve grown impatient,” said Park Board president Chris Wright. “At some point, we have to develop the north bank.”

The configuration of a planned playground in that area of the park might change if a complex is being built on the property. Wright said the board would prefer knowing that going into final decision-making for the north bank, which is one of the last areas slated for construction in the park redevelopment. That’s scheduled to conclude in 2019.

Romero stressed that talks between all the potential partners are in their early stages. But an agreement could breathe new life into the project, he said.

“If you bring multiple partners to the table, something that looked like it was overwhelming starts to look achievable,” Romero said.