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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane County won’t put property tax on August ballot for Avista Stadium upgrades

May 19, 2022 Updated Tue., May 24, 2022 at 4:53 p.m.

A high-angle view of the Avista Stadium baseball diamond in 2017. Voters may eventually be asked to tax themselves to pay for stadium upgrades, but the question won’t be on the ballot this August.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
A high-angle view of the Avista Stadium baseball diamond in 2017. Voters may eventually be asked to tax themselves to pay for stadium upgrades, but the question won’t be on the ballot this August. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

County taxpayers may eventually be asked to fund upgrades to the Spokane Indians’ ballpark, but they won’t be voting on a proposal this summer.

Spokane County and the Spokane Indians aren’t putting an Avista Stadium question on the August primary ballot.

In recent months, the county – which owns Avista Stadium – and Indians have considered asking voters to approve a temporary property tax that would be used to fund needed upgrades to the 64-year-old park.

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

New Major League Baseball requirements are forcing minor league teams to improve their facilities, mostly for the players’ benefit. Avista Stadium, one of the older minor league facilities in the West, needs more extensive work than most ballparks. Among a long list of mandatory upgrades, the stadium needs a renovated playing field, better lighting system, improved dugouts and expanded clubhouses.

The upgrades won’t be cheap. At the low end, they might cost $16 million, but the total cost could top $23 million if the county and Indians opt to go beyond the Major League’s requirements and make optional spectator improvements.

Spokane Indians President Chris Duff said there wasn’t enough time to put together a strong request for the August ballot. “It felt a little rushed and forced,” he said.

Duff said the Indians and county were looking at asking voters to approve a bundled proposal.

That bundled property tax request would have combined the Avista Stadium upgrades with investments toward other parks’ enhancements throughout the county. Voters would pay more, but their taxes would fund new trails and other recreation improvements instead of merely upgrading the Indians’ baseball field.

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said he didn’t feel a ballot measure was “ready for prime time.” He also said he was generally opposed to the bundling concept.

“If this was about the stadium, then the stadium should be able to stand on its own,” Kerns said.

Duff said he’s not sure if the county and Indians will put the question to voters on the November ballot. So at this point, it’s not clear how the county and Indians will come up with the money.

“I think there’s a lot of things that are still in play that we have to figure out before it comes back to the commissioners,” County Commissioner Mary Kuney said.

County Commissioner Al French said he’d like to see more stakeholders contribute to the Avista Stadium work.

“I’m not in favor of the county footing the whole bill,” he said.

The Indians will help pay for the upgrades, but the question is how much. The team has expressed a willingness to pay an increased annual lease – the Indians currently pay the county about $25,000 a year – and up to $3 million upfront for the improvements.

That’s not a big enough contribution, Kerns said.

“It’s a nonstarter for me,” he said. “The biggest benefit for this is the baseball team, so I think it more falls on the baseball team to figure this out, not necessarily the county or the taxpayers.”

French said he’d like the state Legislature fund a portion of the project.

“They’ve run a budget that’s flush with cash here now for a couple of years,” he said. “They could probably throw a couple of shillings our way.”

French said Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, might be able to help secure funding. In addition to serving as a state senator, Billig is an Indians co-owner and works part-time as the team’s CEO.

“If he can’t get some investment into it, then why should anybody else?” French said.

Billig said the county is welcome to ask the Legislature to help fund the Avista Stadium upgrades, but he’s not going to get involved personally.

“It would not be appropriate for me to lobby for it,” Billig said. “If they were to pursue funding related to a facility that was used by a business that I was involved with, I would not lobby for that money.”

Minor league teams in the state have lobbied the Legislature as a group before, Duff said, seeking funding for their publicly owned facilities. He said the state’s ballclubs have started talking about lobbying the Legislature in 2023.

Kuney emphasized that she doesn’t want the Indians to leave. She said she’s heard from many constituents who feel strongly about keeping the area’s only professional baseball team.

“Everyone pretty much wants to do what they can to make sure the Indians stay in Spokane,” she said.

Spokane County and the Indians will have to figure out their funding sources soon.

The Indians’ home ballpark has to comply with the new regulations by the start of the 2026 season. If the team and county don’t start making incremental progress now, they might not meet that deadline.

“We need to start making some decisions as a community in the next six months,” Duff said. “There’s not much time left.”

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