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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Credibility concerns led to ‘no’ vote on last chance for downtown stadium location

Joe Albi Stadium is shown Thursday, Sept 27, 2018 during the game between Ferris and Shadle Park. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Joe Albi Stadium is shown Thursday, Sept 27, 2018 during the game between Ferris and Shadle Park. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

There were no cheers after Wednesday night’s decision by the Spokane Public Schools board to build a new stadium at the current Joe Albi site.

There were plenty of regrets, however.

Ironically, the biggest came from the man who ultimately decided an issue that could shape the landscape of youth sports in Spokane for years to come.

After listening to a presentation from the Spokane Public Facilities District for a combined Sportsplex and indoor stadium located on the north bank of the Spokane River, board member Brian Newberry praised the concept and its potential for millions of dollars in savings.

“I just wish we’d had this conversation six months ago,” Newberry said.

Then Newberry turned down the chance to give the PFD and Spokane Sports Commission a few weeks to develop a firm proposal.

As the potential tie-breaking vote, Newberry was in a tough spot. Board colleagues Deana Brower and Mike Wiser were already in favor of allowing the PFD to develop details and come back in a few weeks.

“This requires due diligence, and due diligence requires time,” Brower said. “I don’t see a sense of urgency.”

Neither did district staffers, who said they wouldn’t need a final answer until late spring.

However, board members Sue Chapin and Jerrall Haynes were committed to the Albi option. Citing the results of last month’s advisory vote, they opted not to pursue the PFD proposal.

It was a decision driven by fear, not opportunity.

“I believe in the democratic process,” Haynes said. “But if we are to go against the voters’ decision, we run the risk of losing hundreds of millions in voters going against bonds in the future.”

That formed the crux of the pro-Albi argument since the PFD proposal surfaced two weeks ago: that the board couldn’t break trust with the voters, 64 percent of whom chose the Albi site.

Backers of the downtown option have enough regrets to pave a parking lot.

The campaign was rushed and lacked visuals. Voters said they were confused over the language of the ballot, concerned over cost and availability of parking and even whether a $31 million stadium – no matter the site – should be part of a school bond.

In football parlance, it was a fumble that no one could recover.

Parking issues were resolved in October – too little, too late for some early vote-by-mailers.

Many others were so confused they didn’t vote at all. The stadium results showed 7,388 people who filed ballots chose not to vote on the stadium’s location. Less than half that number chose not to vote on the school bond itself.

Results showed a massive geographic divide. Northern precincts, those lying roughly north of Euclid Avenue, plumped about 74 percent for Albi. South of that line, 52.5 percent of voters preferred the Albi option.

Thousands of others – school district residents who live outside city limits – couldn’t participate in the vote.

“I’m not sure voters spoke with one voice, or that all voices were heard,” Brower said.

But for all its flaws, that 64 percent loomed too large for Haynes, Chapin, and eventually Newberry.

They were given another chance on Wednesday.

During a 20-minute presentation, PFD chief Stephanie Curran and sports commission president Eric Sawyer outlined a vision for a combined facility that would leave the parking lot intact.

The $42 million Sportsplex is still in that early planning phase, leaving the PFD and the district with plenty of options.

The presentation was backed by several speakers. Among them was James Albi, the great-nephew of Joe.

After reminiscing about his great-uncle’s vision and legacy, Albi challenged the board to have that same kind of leadership.

“This multisports facility proposal is phenomenal,” Albi said. “It’s an opportunity for another 70-year legacy for what’s good for Spokane.”

Others spoke about sports opportunities for youth in Spokane, who also lost out after Wednesday’s decision.

The Sportsplex option would have opened up at least six more fields at the Merkel complex next to Albi, enough to make Spokane a major player for regional events in soccer, lacrosse, flag football and other events.

“I really believe this is in the interest of the children you serve,” said Brian O’Rourk, a youth lacrosse coach who hopes the sport will offer more opportunities for disadvantaged athletes.

Victor Frazier, a member of the West Central Community Center board of directors, said he was originally opposed to a downtown stadium.

“Then last week I saw this idea,” Frazier said. “I said, ‘Wow, this is something.’ ”

Haynes and Chapin appeared underwhelmed.

Finally, with the division among the board members clear, Wiser asked them to consider another public vote. When that idea was shot down, Wiser joined the majority for the sake of unity.

In the end, the board gave up millions of dollars and greater revenue and sports opportunities for youth.

In a few months, barring a petition asking the board to reconsider its decision, district staff will hire an architect to design a new $31 million stadium on the site of the old complex, while a middle school will go up where a parking lot now sits.

Meanwhile, the PFD will move forward alone with the Sportsplex on the north bank of the Spokane River.

“We’re moving forward,” Curran said Thursday. “But honestly, I thought (our proposal) was in the best interest of the community.”

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