The ball is in the Spokane City Council’s court as to whether to ask voters to approve construction of a downtown sports stadium this fall.
During Wednesday evening’s school board meeting, Rick Romero, the former city utilities director who has been guiding discussions with Spokane Public Schools on a bond issue that would give the city new middle schools and libraries, offered school board members a way out of their concerns about funding the project.
Instead of incurring an anticipated $10 million in additional costs for the stadium – costs that would be needed if it were built near Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, rather than replacing Joe Albi Stadium on its existing site – Romero told the panel the city could add the ask to its own bond measure.
“It feels like that partnership is getting stressed a little bit – and may even be more of a negotiation than a partnership – over what’s really just a small piece of this whole package,” Romero said.
Such a shift would bring the school’s ask of voters down from $505 million to $495 million, and raise the amount the city would ask for from $103 million to $113 million.
The agreement would keep intact an understanding that the city would provide land for three new middle schools to reduce elementary school class sizes by shifting sixth-graders to other buildings beginning in 2021. It also would eliminate what Sue Chapin, chairwoman of the Spokane School Board, called “a dealbreaker,” which was the inclusion of the $10 million for a parking garage at the new stadium in a bond measure intended for education.
“I think there’s a lot of things a school district can do with $10 million, towards safety and towards building improvements, rather than on a parking garage,” Chapin said.
School board member Brian Newberry said the proposal untangled a “Gordian knot” that had he and his colleagues debating the merits of sports facilities rather than school buildings.
“I’m also appointed to be a director that is here for SPS, not walking around as the mayor of Spokane,” Newberry said. “I’m sitting here struggling with, is this best for SPS versus what’s best for the community?”
It may also be a tough sell to the Spokane City Council, which will have to agree to add the tax burden onto its request for funds should it go before voters in November, said City Council President Ben Stuckart.
“I’m going to have a hard time rallying members about a parking garage,” Stuckart said. He echoed the comments of Romero and others, who said the stadium issue seemed to be eclipsing the broader story about the cooperation of city government, schools and libraries to bring additional facilities to the public made possible by declining local property taxes.
“The new middle schools, and the libraries, are more important to me than where the stadium is located,” Stuckart said. “We’re going to have some serious discussions over the next few days.”
A study presented to the school board Wednesday evening indicated that traffic for most Friday night football games wouldn’t stress the entrances and exits to a stadium, which would be built north of a planned sports complex and take up spaces in a lot currently used as a park-and-ride for downtown commuters. The garage, operated by the Spokane Public Facilities District, would have enough spaces to offset the parking loss from building the 5,000-seat stadium.
Parking for high school football games on Friday nights would be free, while there would still be a fee for parking at the Spokane Arena for other events. Stephanie Curran, chief executive of the Public Facilities District, said her team could keep an accounting of who owed for parking and who didn’t.
If it’s approved by all parties, the schools bond would still have enough money to build a smaller stadium on the Joe Albi site, if the city’s bond failed at the ballot. That also would allow for construction of a middle school at the same site near the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex, which would present its own traffic challenges for weekly football games in the fall, board members said.
The school board took no official action on the request, only directing Romero to float the idea to the City Council. Romero said Mayor David Condon, who has been in talks to bring minor league soccer to the downtown stadium, agrees with the plan.
A joint session of the school board, City Council and Spokane Library board of trustees is scheduled Aug. 1 to finalize the ballot language. Public testimony will be taken at that meeting, though details are not yet available on a time and place.