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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Shawn Vestal: The school district should drive a hard bargain on downtown stadium

This artist’s rendering shows the location of the proposed downtown stadium.  (Courtesy of Downtown Spokane Partnership)
This artist’s rendering shows the location of the proposed downtown stadium. (Courtesy of Downtown Spokane Partnership)

Half a century ago, when the political and business leaders of Spokane became devoted to trying to host a World’s Fair in Spokane, there was plenty of skepticism about the idea.

For a lot of folks, the whole crackpot idea smacked of the city’s big shots trying to cram their will – and their financial priorities – down the throats of the people.

To make Expo ’74 possible, the city needed to raise almost $6 million – the equivalent of almost $40 million today – to remove the rail lines and yards at the city center, and to clear out Havermale Island. The city proposed issuing bonds for the work, which voters would repay through property tax increases. The proposal went onto the ballot in August 1971.

“Local opposition was vocal,” according to a HistoryLink article by local author and former Spokesman-Review staffer Jim Kershner. “Some people believed wealthy downtown interests were foisting the project upon the community; they took to calling it ‘Exploit ’74.’ ”

The people versus the wealthy downtown interests.

Has a familiar ring.

A majority of voters said yes to the bonds – but it fell short of the 60% margin of approval required. And so the wealthy downtown interests put their money where their mouths were.

With support from the Chamber of Commerce and business community, the City Council passed a temporary increase in the dreaded B&O tax – the levy against a business’s gross receipts – to pay for the work, which made possible an event whose transformative effect on the city is still felt today.

The whole city benefited, of course, and it was spectacularly good for business in Spokane. So there was some justice in the way that work was financed.

It’s an interesting bit of history to consider as a similar dynamic plays out with the proposed downtown stadium. Only in this case, the one measure of the public’s voice is even clearer – 64% of voters rejected the idea of Spokane Public Schools building a downtown stadium in 2018.

Supporters of the downtown plan immediately began discounting that vote. Calls to ignore it began the very next day, and a renewed plan to ignore the vote and proceed downtown came from the Downtown Spokane Partnership earlier this year.

It’s always interesting when people construct arguments that run counter to expressions of the public’s will. Most of us can find ways to rationalize or justify sailing against public opinion when it suits our purpose.

I have argued, and argue still, for fluoridating Spokane’s water, despite a very close vote against it more than 20 years ago. My guess would be a vote taken today, following a decent campaign by proponents, would pass – but the truth is that I would support fluoridation as a public health measure along the lines of many other public health measures which are not put up for a vote.

The wholesale effort to reject that stadium vote – a push led by the Downtown Spokane Partnership and politicians spanning the spectrum from Mayor Nadine Woodward to Rep. Marcus Riccelli – has been truly spectacular. Stadium supporters have marshaled public testimony, and helped flood a school-district survey through social media ads. Politicians who, in other contexts, all but worship the importance of the public’s voice are calling in this case to ignore it.

Supporters have produced reports showing how good it would be for the economy. They have made arguments – and they are, frankly, persuasive – that the downtown stadium could be a good addition to the city in a variety of ways.

What they have not done is put enough skin in the game. What there has not been is enough incentive for the school district – whose single charge is to educate children – to carry all the water for an economic development project and push to attract a minor league soccer team.

The district has begun initial work to spend $31 million on a new stadium at Joe Albi. Voters supported the Albi plan, but it’s fair to note the vote was a mess – a vague, rushed advisory ballot, run by the city. Only voters in the city limits had a say, which meant 10,000 or so school district patrons outside the city didn’t get a vote.

Still: almost two-thirds against.

A margin of 25,000 voters against.

If the district moves forward with the downtown plan, it better extract a fantastic deal. If the district is going to reject that advisory vote, it needs to do so on the basis of more than simply high hopes from those who stand to make money off it.

Fortunately, the board is going slow, being cautious, asking a lot of questions and driving a hard bargain with those who are selling the stadium Shangri-La. It is trying to push to share in the financial benefits and spread the financial obligations.

Wednesday, the board voted to delay a final vote to negotiate more favorable terms with the Public Facilities District, which would operate and maintain the stadium. It is seeking guarantees of future cost savings, protection against cost overruns, safeguards for the neighboring Civic Theatre, and further concessions from the PFD.

It’s trying – as it should – to get more than just talk from the folks with stars in their eyes about a downtown stadium. It’s trying to get that fantastic deal. And if it can’t, the board should be prepared to do what anyone driving a hard bargain must: walk away.

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