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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Despite city go-ahead on sportsplex, confusion surrounds stadium developments

Joe Albi Stadium is shown Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 during a high school football game, the most common use for the venerable stadium. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The problem with visionary ideas is that sometimes they need better visuals.

With Election Day barely two weeks away, the image of a vibrant downtown Spokane is clear enough to its leaders.

For Eric Sawyer, president of the Spokane Sports Commission, it’s a place where people can enjoy dinner, walk through a revitalized Riverfront Park and find a sports oasis on the north side of the river.

Spokane is halfway there; it has an arena, while a fully-funded indoor sportsplex is in the design stage.

Now there’s a push for a new downtown stadium to complete the trifecta and cap a groundbreaking collaboration among the city, the Public Facilities District, libraries and Spokane Public Schools.

“That’s the urban experience,” said Sawyer, echoing the dreams of Mayor David Condon and others.

But what would it look like?

If only the mail-in ballot came with an artist’s rendering. Instead, the city and district can offer only a rough drawing, a locator map and a vision.

No local issue has elicited as much confusion on this year’s ballot, even among the supposedly well-informed, as the advisory vote on where to locate a new 5,000-seat stadium.

During a recent golf outing, Stephanie Curran, president of the Spokane Public Facilities District, was asked by friends whether the sportsplex was on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Stunned, Curran replied that it’s already fully funded and well on the path to reality – and that it’s a separate entity from the stadium.

Separate, yes, but the two attractions would occupy contiguous ground on land east of the Arena, between Boone Avenue and Riverfront Park. That land would adjoin Riverfront Park north of the Spokane River.

It also would provide some unity between downtown proper and the north bank, especially when the north end of the park is renovated down the road.

“We’ve got to quit acting like the river is where the city stops,” said Rick Romero, who heads special projects for the city. “That promenade is going to be an incredible connection.”

In the meantime, leaders are trying to connect with voters.

“One of the reasons we’re so passionate about this is that this is a long-term choice that we are making for this community, and the citizens really need to have a voice in that choice,” Romero said.

“You’ve got to be thinking 30 years ahead on something like this,” Romero said.

A new stadium – whether it’s built on the current Albi site or downtown – is budgeted for $31 million. The money to build a new stadium is folded into the school district’s $495 million capital bond that also would build six middle schools and other projects.

But the school board punted the location of the new stadium to the city in hopes that any controversy wouldn’t jeopardize the 60 percent voter support required for passage of the bond.

The city is asking voters what they think via an advisory vote that’s on the ballots mailed to city residents last week.

Yes, parking would be free for high school events.

No, there will not be a massive stadium in Spokane. Capacity is a non-negotiable seating for 5,000. The current stadium, with seating for almost 30,000, will be demolished.

No, a parking garage for the downtown location isn’t necessary after all, based on the findings of a comprehensive parking study.

No, moving football games and other events back to high school fields wouldn’t be cost-effective.

The biggest breakthrough for the push to build a stadium downtown rather than at the Albi site came with the completion of a comprehensive parking study.

“The first instinct everybody had was ‘Oh, my gosh, what about parking?’ ” Curran said. “Now that we’ve had some time to look into things, parking has become less of an issue.”

It’s even less of an issue after the city received tentative commitments of 500 parking spaces from Unico, the owners of the Rock Pointe Executive Suites, and 400 from Wonder Spokane LLC, owners of the Wonder Building.

And while the new stadium would displace about 500 parking spots, Curran said “that’s the last lot we fill” for the Spokane Chiefs and other large events.

Moreover, another study showed minimal potential conflict between the Chiefs – the Arena’s primary tenant – and high school athletics.

Another plus, say downtown stadium backers, would be the economy of scale from having the PFD manage all three facilities. With complementary sports seasons, the PFD could use full-time staff instead of seasonal workers.

And what about the old Albi site?

Should the school board opt to build a downtown stadium, a middle school would be built atop the old stadium site, while six new playing fields would be added to the Merkel Complex.

That would bring the total to 14 – which according to Sawyer is a critical mass for attracting regional events for soccer, lacrosse and other sports.

“Fourteen fields, that really opens the door to host some tournaments,” Sawyer said. “We could see some big participation numbers, visitors spending money – that stuff is pretty marketable.”

Should the stadium remain in northwest Spokane, the middle school would be located to the south, on the site of the current Albi parking lot.

In that case, “the reality is that it wouldn’t have enough fields,” Sawyer said.