There’s still a chance that high school athletes will be playing football downtown and not in northwest Spokane in the fall of 2022.
Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner is urging the Spokane Public Schools board to reconsider its earlier decision to replace aging Joe Albi Stadium at the same site. Baumgartner drafted a letter to the board, claiming that building downtown would save taxpayers $2 million.
Changing locations would reignite a controversy that seemingly ended when voters, by a wide margin, told the school board in an advisory vote to rebuild at the existing Albi site.
Baumgartner dangled the prospect of better opportunities for state and local funding help if the board chose to build a 5,000-seat outdoor stadium on the north bank of the river near the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena and an indoor Sportsplex now under construction.
“There’s a wider feeling that if you build on the Albi site it would be a 30-year mistake, and that this is an opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons,” Baumgartner said.
The idea, he said, has support from several public officials, including legislators Marcus Riccelli and Andy Billig.
“All agree the current replacement plan is less than optimal,” Baumgartner wrote to the board. “All were willing to engage and support a better plan that makes sense for students and for taxpayers.”
Noting that the five-person school board has three new members, Baumgartner said, “I think it would be negligent for local elected officials not to take a look at it.”
It’s unclear if the board will revisit its vote on the topic, but Baumgartner’s request will be discussed at the school board’s next meeting on Jan. 22, according to board President Jerrall Haynes.
Haynes said Wednesday afternoon that “the rest of the board is interested in having those conversations, where we can go forward and what the possibilities are.”
Besides the potential savings of $2 million in construction and operating costs, Baumgartner said freeing up more space at the current Albi site would allow for more space to build revenue-generating soccer fields.
“I believe that if the facility were downtown, there would potentially be significant state capital funds available to both augment the facility and, more importantly, help fund sports fields and lights at the Albi site that would be used by both District 81 students and the wider community,” Baumgartner wrote to the school board.
Those same arguments were made during the summer of 2018 as the district courted enough voter support for a $495 million capital bond.
The bond included money to replace 60-year-old Albi Stadium in northwest Spokane. However, several board members were concerned over the scarcity of downtown parking.
The issue spilled over to the city of Spokane, which linked its own public library bond to passage of the school bond. Rather than jeopardize passage, the council instead put an advisory vote on the ballot, asking constituents whether they wanted the $30 million stadium built downtown or at the Albi site.
The downtown site drew widespread support from business and civic leaders, including then-Mayor David Condon.
However, backers acknowledged that their campaign for a downtown stadium was rushed and lacked visuals. And some voters said they were confused regarding the ballot language, concerned about the cost and availability of parking, and doubtful that a $31 million stadium – no matter the site – should be part of a school bond.
The parking issues were resolved in October – too little, too late for some who filled out their ballots early.
Many others were so confused they didn’t vote at all. The stadium results showed 7,388 people who returned ballots chose not to vote on the stadium location.
Thousands of others, including people who live within the school district but outside of the city limits, couldn’t participate in the vote.
“That’s not the way you do things successfully in Spokane for a project of that size,” Baumgartner said.
In an interview last month as he prepared to leave office, Condon lamented his administration’s failure to win voter support for the downtown stadium. Condon felt that people didn’t understand “the money was going to get spent, it was just where should we spend it.”
“I regret that we didn’t put together a better education campaign of what that would have meant for downtown,” Condon said.
Condon hoped that the school board would still reconsider the issue and argued that a stadium, and more specifically a sports team, would help unify the city.
“Whether it’s arena football, whether it’s soccer, whether it’s hockey, whether it’s baseball, people will sit next to each other and people will come together,” Condon said. “I think as a community, you need to have (sports) in the core of our city.”
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.
After considerable debate, the school board declined, citing the outcome of the advisory vote.
However, the Albi replacement project is still in the preliminary design phase.
A final design won’t be completed until the end of this year – regardless of location.
The five-person school board has three new members – Nikki Lockwood, Jenny Slagle and Kevin Morrison. They join Haynes and Mike Wiser.
Baumgartner feels that the new board should have a say in such a far-reaching issue.
“I’d like them to slow down and take another look,” Baumgartner said.
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