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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Many voices, differing opinions as question of downtown stadium dominates school board meeting

Joe Albi Stadium. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The shadow of a downtown stadium loomed large over a packed meeting where the Spokane City Council was scheduled to consider only taxes for new libraries.

Following a decision Monday to table the request for an extra $10 million from taxpayers in November to pay for the 5,000-seat facility, city lawmakers heard from residents who mostly urged them to reconsider taking the decision out of voters’ hands. More than 40 people signed up to speak to the council and the Spokane School Board, who were meeting together for the first time in the city’s history.

“If this doesn’t come to a vote, that’s taking my thoughts and my choices away from me,” said South Hill resident Kurt Helgerson.

Dave Black, chief executive of the real estate firm NAI Black, recalled falling asleep on bus rides from Ferris High School to play football games at far-flung Joe Albi Stadium.

“I couldn’t figure out why it seemed like we had to go to what seemed like a different town for a football game,” Black said, to laughter from the crowd.

Brian O’Rourk, a member of the Washington High School Boys Lacrosse Association, said the construction of a downtown stadium would allow for new fields at the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex to allow a burgeoning sport to blossom.

“If we had field availability, we have grant money from the western side of the state that would help create teams at North Central, Shadle and Rogers,” O’Rourk said.

Not everyone believed the downtown stadium was a good idea.

“Private companies and owners stand to make personal wealth while Spokane taxpayers foot the bill for building this facility,” said Sydney Childers, a South Hill resident who teaches theater for Spokane Public Schools.

Eric Boose, a 2017 graduate of Lewis and Clark High School and a soccer player, said a downtown stadium would benefit one sport over others.

“A downtown stadium benefits varsity football, and that’s about it,” Boose said. He asked why the school district couldn’t consider upgrading fields at each of the area high schools, rather than continuing to centralize athletics at one location.

“It’s a 20-minute drive from Ferris to Joe Albi stadium,” Boose said. “It’s hard to feel like a home fan when you have to drive for 20 minutes to watch your team play.”

Representatives of the Spokane Sports Commission, the Downtown Spokane Partnership and Greater Spokane Inc. all urged the council to dream big and return the issue to the ballot to let voters decide.

Members of the school board urged the City Council to consider the testimony in their deliberations over a downtown stadium.

“I do think that it should be a separate, distinct thing,” said Mike Wiser, of the school board. “But I do think it seems the issue could use some more time.”

City Councilman Breean Beggs said he would work toward a “clean up or down vote on the stadium location.”

“The thing that I have heard, is ‘let the voters decide,’ ” Beggs said. “I really agree with that principle.”

Such a proposal could take place as early as Thursday afternoon’s council meeting, said City Councilman Mike Fagan. He was one of five lawmakers who voted to table the request indefinitely, but said after Wednesday’s meeting that action could be undone.

“Councilmember Kinnear and I have talked, and both of us are aligned that we would like to bring it up for further discussion,” Fagan said.

That would require a majority of the council to vote to reconsider its decision to table the proposal. Two council members would have to change their minds.

City Councilwoman Karen Stratton said she appreciated the testimony Wednesday, but continued to have concerns that adding a stadium proposal onto the ballot would turn voters off of the measures for schools and libraries, which she said were more important.

“I think the priority is the schools and libraries,” Stratton said. “This isn’t the priority, although I like it.”

$77M libraries bond OK’d by council

Lacking the controversy of the downtown stadium proposal, a $77 million bond request for the city’s public library system was unanimously approved by the City Council.

The money would be used to fund construction of three new library branches. One would be located next to Shaw Middle School in the Hillyard Neighborhood.

The second would be built across from First Avenue near the Libby Center, where the school district houses its gifted programs and staff development areas in the East Central Neighborhood.

The third new site would be built in Liberty Park, which would more than double the size of the existing library branch next to the community center for the East Central Neighborhood.

Bond funds would also be used to renovate the downtown library, adding more open space on the anchor branch’s first floor for community gatherings and more room for children’s activities on the second floor. Improvements and expansions are also planned at the Shadle, South Hill and Indian Trail branches.

Library staff argue the updates are needed, as the last time the system received a significant upgrade was in the 1990s, and the needs of a library have changed since then.