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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Jack Phillips: Downtown sports arena would threaten Civic Theatre’s economic livelihood

By Jack Phillips

By Jack Phillips

I happily served as the artistic director of the Spokane Civic Theatre for 13 years until 2005 and returned in 2016 to become the interim artistic director while the Board conducted a national search for a new candidate. I had been serving while the current arena was constructed. I have been regularly in touch with active members of the theatre and Spokane holds a special place in my heart.

I have been following with concern the discussions about building yet another arena.

There are many reasons why voters across the country reject proposals to build a sports arena in their city. The arguments in favor are the same from city to city.

There have also been many studies by communities, state organizations and Federal commissions to research these arguments.

“… A lot of economic studies have tried to find stadiums and arenas that have repaid the public for nine-figure construction costs and it’s never happened.” Neil deMause, Field of Schemes.

The John Lock Foundation published results from 20 years of published economic records and found “almost no evidence that professional sports franchises and facilities have a measurable economic impact on the economy.”

A study by Noll and Zimbalist on newly constructed subsidized stadiums shows that they have “very limited and possibly even negative local impact. This is because the opportunity goes to allocating a great deal of money to a service like a stadium rather than infrastructure or other community projects that would benefit locals.”

A recent federal commission disclosed that “there is no substantial evidence that building a sports arena adds jobs or economic development.”

You are welcome to Google it to check.

When I was offered the job in Spokane, I checked several sites to find out what Spokane was like. I was sold on the location because, along with the easy access to so many wonderful natural resources, a survey showed that 13% of the population went to live theatre or a live performance more than once a year. The national average was 2%. People in Spokane wanted live entertainment.

While I lived there, I served on a committee for the Chamber tasked with talking with executives who were interested in moving their company to Spokane. The two questions the executives always asked were “How are the schools?” and “Is there an active arts community?” That is what owners of business wanted to know about the quality of life for their employees.

The Spokane Civic Theatre is a treasure that must be preserved. It is the only community theatre in the country to win a place in the national competition seven times. It is also the only community theatre in the county to have its production named “Best in the Country” three times. Civic Theatre has trained and developed many young people who are now teaching in Spokane and across the country. The theatre has also trained and developed many actors now working in New York and on television. Cheyenne Jackson, Casey Graham, Kendal Hartse, Jason Michael Snow and Max Kumangai, among many others, were all seen on Civic’s stages before Broadway and on screen.

We have learned from experience that heavy traffic discourages attendance at the theatre. The noise level of an outdoor arena is a great deterrent to a performance. Civic is a business too. It makes money by selling one ticket at a time. Regardless of the quality of the work onstage, if patrons are discouraged from attending, the theatre cannot survive. Losing Spokane Civic Theatre would mean losing one of the principal reasons tourists come to the city.

I am certainly aware of the diplomatic effort by members of the theatre offering to work-co-operatively with the supporters of the new arena. I am certain that the theatre will make every attempt to make things work whatever the outcome. I am certain that the construction, if accepted, will drive theatre supporters away, many of whom will never come back.

I am also concerned that the same arena supporting arguments used for years and never fulfilled will hurt Spokane irrevocably.

The arts are the drivers of the quality of life in the city we all love.

Jack Phillips,

Artistic Director Emeritus, Spokane Civic Theatre

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