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Spokane County may put tax on ballot for Avista Stadium upgrade

A high-angle view of the Avista Stadium baseball diamond in 2017. The stadium needs millions of dollars of upgrades in order to comply with new Major League Baseball requirements and Spokane County commissioners are weighing options for how to fund the work.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
A high-angle view of the Avista Stadium baseball diamond in 2017. The stadium needs millions of dollars of upgrades in order to comply with new Major League Baseball requirements and Spokane County commissioners are weighing options for how to fund the work. (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Are Spokane County voters willing to pay millions of dollars to upgrade the Spokane Indians’ home ballpark?

We might know after the August primary election.

The Spokane County commissioners and the Spokane Indians are discussing how to fund upgrades to Avista Stadium, which the county owns. The county and ballclub might put a bond issue on the ballot and let voters decide if they’re willing to tax themselves to pay for the improvements.

New Major League Baseball requirements are forcing Spokane County and the Indians to spend at least $16 million upgrading the 60-year-old stadium. The two sides will have to figure out how to split the cost and come up with the money.

A bond issue is the leading option. It would raise money by temporarily increasing property taxes and requires 60% voter approval to pass.

Regardless of where the money comes from, Avista Stadium needs upgrades if the Indians are going to keep playing there.

“There is no gray area,” Spokane Indians President Chris Duff said in an interview. “It’s the expectation of Major League Baseball that in order to have an affiliated minor league team, you have to hit a certain level and a certain standard. We don’t really have options.”

The Indians and the county plan to work on Avista Stadium incrementally over the next four years to comply with MLB requirements by the start of the 2026 season. Most of the changes are for the players’ benefit. There’s a long list of mandated improvements, but to name a few, Avista needs a completely renovated playing field, new lights and new clubhouses.

The $16 million figure would cover the bare minimum required by MLB, but the Indians and county could spend another $7 million improving the stadium for fans – a $2 million concourse that allows spectators to watch the game from beyond the outfield fence is a possibility.

If the county and Indians go down the bond issue route, they’ll have to figure out how to pitch it. For instance, residents might be able to vote exclusively on the Avista upgrades. That bond issue would fall in the $25-30 million range. A $25 million bond would increase property taxes on a $300,000 house by about $5.50 a year for 20 years, according to county estimates.

The county could decide to package the Avista Stadium upgrades with other parks and recreation improvements. Bundling multiple projects might give the bond broader appeal, but it’d also make it more expensive.

“Our taxpayers will have the final say on it,” Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said in an interview. “That’s where that decision should rest.”

Major changes to minor league landscape

Minor league baseball has changed a lot in the past two years.

In 2020, Major League Baseball decided to reduce the number of minor league teams from 160 to 120. It was a harshly criticized move that caused some communities throughout the country to lose professional baseball entirely.

But the Indians benefited. They not only became a farm club for MLB’s Colorado Rockies and stayed in Spokane County, they went from the short-season Northwest League to the long-season High-A West. That meant a bump from 38 to 66 home games a year and a more talented roster.

Changes announced in 2021, requiring minor league teams to improve their facilities for players, are trickier and more expensive to handle.

That’s in part because Avista Stadium opened in 1958 and is one of the oldest minor league ballfields in the West.

While it’s in relatively good shape, its age means it needs more work than other stadiums. Duff said to comply with the requirements, Avista Stadium needs more upgrades than any other minor league stadium in America.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the county and Indians have a hard time hammering out a cost sharing agreement for the renovations.

Sports teams often have more leverage than local governments in stadium negotiations. It’s not uncommon to have a team leave if it finds a more favorable offer elsewhere.

Stadium battles even happen at the highest level. Just two years ago the Oakland Raiders left for Las Vegas, in large part because the team and the city of Oakland couldn’t come to an agreement on how to build a new stadium.

But Duff pointed out that the Indians have been in Spokane for more than a century. He said the Indians aren’t even thinking about leaving.

“That really hasn’t crossed my mind,” he said. “I don’t really see it as an option.”

The first offer

The Indians and county haven’t started bartering yet, but the ballclub offered some hypothetical numbers during a Jan. 24 county commissioners meeting.

Duff said the numbers were for “brainstorming” purposes, but they’re based on the Indians’ current and projected finances.

The Indians presented three scenarios.

Under one scenario, the Indians would pay $3 million upfront for upgrades to Avista Stadium. At the same time, their annual lease would double from $24,500 now to $50,000 a year for the next 20 years. Spokane County would lose a cumulative $2 million operating the stadium over those two decades.

Under the second scenario, the Indians would pay $1.5 million upfront and their lease would increase to $100,000 per year for 20 years. Spokane County would lose $1 million over the 20-year life of that lease.

The third scenario would have the Indians pay nothing upfront, but their lease would jump to $200,000 a year. The county would earn $1 million over 20 years under that arrangement.

Kerns said in an interview he views the three scenarios as the Indians’ first offer and wants to see the team contribute more.

“Is this your ceiling?” Kerns asked Duff. “Are you willing to potentially go higher?”

Duff explained that, while those three scenarios are hypothetical, they’re based on an analysis of the Indians’ earnings.

“I’m not ready to say ‘Yes, that’s our ceiling,’ for sure,” he said. “But that’s about where we need to land in order to continue being a sustainable business.”

The Indians will likely be less profitable under each of those scenarios than they were in 2019, Duff said, even with the longer season bringing more home games.

“What we’re trying to do is get back to a similar business to what we were in 2019,” he said. “And the $3 million contribution (up front) or the $200,000 (annual) contribution doesn’t quite get us there.”

Kerns also asked if the Colorado Rockies, the Indians’ major league club, would be willing to chip in for the stadium upgrades. Duff said he was unsure and that the Indians and county should meet with the Rockies to discuss the idea.

Spokane County commissioners Al French and Mary Kuney did not respond to requests for comment, but French said during the Jan. 24 meeting that he wasn’t enamored with the Indians’ initial numbers. He said the county shouldn’t be operating Avista Stadium at a loss.

“That’s a hell of a return for them and a pretty crappy return for us,” French said.

He argued the deal the Spokane Public Facilities District struck with the United Soccer League for the new downtown stadium was better. The USL agreed to contribute $4 million to the $31 million stadium.

“I’m really concerned about the public saying, ‘Well you guys just didn’t do your job, you didn’t negotiate a good deal,’” French said.

The county and Indians have a May 13 deadline to put a bond issue on the August ballot.

Duff said he wants the Indians and county to make sure the public thoroughly understands the proposal if they’re going to vote on it.

“I just think we’ve got one shot at this,” Duff said during a Jan. 31 meeting, “one shot to get it right.”

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