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

Baumgartner, soccer league official make case, with visuals, for downtown stadium

Justin Papadakis, United Soccer League Chief Operating Officer, left, and Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner present their vision for a downtown sports stadium, Tuesday morning at the Wonder Building. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The vision for a downtown sports stadium finally has some visuals.

They’re bright and full of optimism, much like the news conference hosted Tuesday morning by Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner and a representative from the United Soccer League.

Despite the fact that the Spokane Public Schools board of directors is moving ahead with its own vision – a new facility atop the old Albi Stadium – backers of a downtown site like their chances.

“I am very confident that this community can come together to deliver a stadium for downtown Spokane that will have outstanding opportunities for economic development and outstanding opportunities for young people,” Baumgartner told a supportive crowd at the Wonder Building.

And even if the plans don’t align, Baumgartner held out the possibility of a “path that doesn’t include the school board.”

But besides Baumgartner’s mention of that option, it wasn’t seriously discussed on Tuesday.

“When Spokane works best is when we work together,” Baumgartner told a largely supportive crowd of about 100 at the Wonder Building, located across the Spokane River from downtown and only a few hundred yards from a proposed site for a football and soccer stadium.

If built, it could eventually house a pro soccer team as well as its anchor tenants, the high school teams overseen by Spokane Public Schools.

The facility also could be used for other sports, concerts, graduation ceremonies and other events.

A few moments after Baumgartner spoke, Justin Papadakis, chief operating officer of the USL, broke out the visuals, a high-energy video of a USL success story in Madison, Wisconsin, plus some eye-catching examples of current USL stadiums and the enthusiasm they generate.

Their cost – well below the estimated $31 million budgeted for a new stadium – drew approving looks from the crowd.

For example, the USL team in Phoenix plays in a 6,200-seat modular stadium costing $8.5 million, while in Statesboro, Georgia, a $12.5 million brick-and-mortar facility also includes a partial roof and a stage.

Those numbers represent only hard construction costs and don’t include architectural and design costs, permits and other expenses.

However, Baumgartner said he’s confident that a combination soccer and football facility downtown can be built for less than $31 million.

A USL team would play roughly 14 games per season, which would run from April to October. A Spokane-based franchise would complete in the second-tier USL 1 league.

Regardless, Baumgartner and Papadakis made it clear that a pro soccer team would play only at a downtown facility. Both touted the synergy of a sports nexus that also would include the Arena and the ongoing Sportsplex project, plus the expectation of other economic and cultural benefits.

“I want to make sure that my taxes, just like yours, are going to the most fiscally responsible projects they can find,” Baumgartner said.

“Nothing will happen that’s not a win-win for Spokane,” he added.

However, the issues of fiscal and civic responsibility were the elephant in the room. After the news conference, Spokane resident Jim Sheehan confronted Baumgartner and asked him why he was “circumventing the will of the voters.”

During summer 2018, as the school board finalized plans for a $495 million capital bond, the board punted the stadium issue to the city.

In turn, the City Council placed an advisory vote on the ballot asking constituents whether they wanted the stadium built downtown or at the Albi site.

After a campaign that lacked visuals and assertions that voters were confused, about 64% of voters opted for the latter.

Since then, the board has adhered to that result, despite several chances to do otherwise.

A month after the vote, in December 2018, representatives of the Spokane Public Facilities District and the Spokane Sports Commission approached the board with a new proposal to join the Sportsplex project, which at that point was still in the preliminary design phase.

Citing the outcome of the advisory vote, the board declined to even allow the PFD to research the potential savings and approved the Albi option.

“If we are to go against the voters’ decision, we run the risk of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in voters going against bonds in the future,” board member Jerrall Haynes said at the time.

Fourteen months later, the fiscally challenged district is weighing the possibility of floating a supplemental levy, adding weight to Haynes’ concerns.

“That was a more than decisive vote,” Sheehan said of the advisory vote. “This has to be inclusive – it can’t just be downtown and business getting what they want.”

Meanwhile, the board hasn’t held any meetings on the subject since a closed-door meeting on Jan. 15.

The stadium project in northwest Spokane will be in the preliminary design phase for at least the next eight months.

“The board is trying to be very methodical and look at all angles,” Superintendent Shelley Redinger recently said.

Meanwhile, Baumgartner said he’s received “affirming” feedback to his proposal and his contention that building a new stadium at the Albi site would be a “30-year mistake.”

Editor’s note: The headline on this article was changed on Feb. 12, 2020 to correct the title of the United Soccer League’s chief operating officer, Justin Papadakis.