County, Spokane Indians reach agreement on $23 million Avista Stadium renovation
Feb. 22, 2023 Updated Wed., Feb. 22, 2023 at 9:34 a.m.
Spokane County and the Spokane Indians have agreed how to share the cost of their $23 million Avista Stadium renovation project.
After a contentious and lengthy discussion Tuesday, the Spokane County Commission narrowly approved a memorandum of understanding with the Indians that achieves two primary goals.
First, the agreement defines how much Spokane County and the Indians will pay for upgrading Avista Stadium, the county-owned facility that serves as the team’s home ballpark. Second, it sets the terms of the Indians’ new lease, which will go into effect after the stadium improvements are complete.
Major League Baseball is raising the standard for minor league ballparks throughout the country, mainly for the sake of players. Avista Stadium, which was built in 1958, needs a long list of upgrades before the 2025 season to comply with MLB’s new requirements.
Player improvements, such as new locker rooms, training facilities and dugouts, will cost $16.5 million. The county and Indians also are adding spectator amenities, including new field-level seats at the end of the dugouts.
For more than a year, the county and Indians have traded proposals for funding the renovation project. The fundamental question during negotiations has been straightforward: How much of the financial responsibility belongs to the stadium’s owner, and how much belongs to the stadium’s for-profit tenant?
Spokane County in December said it would contribute up to $8 million, provided the Indians could come up with $8 million in matching funds. Spokane Valley and the Indians have each pledged $2 million. The Indians are lobbying the Legislature for more than $5 million, and the county is hoping Sen. Patty Murray, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers can find federal funding, too.
The new memorandum of understanding not only states the county and Indians’ financial obligations for the renovation project, it also outlines the terms of the team’s new 20-year lease.
Starting after the improvements are made, the Indians’ rent will increase from $25,000 to $100,000 a year. The rent will go up by an additional $2,000 every year after that.
The Indians will assume all maintenance and operations expenses, which have cost the county about $150,000 annually.
The county and Indians have also reached a revenue sharing agreement, although not all of the county commissioners are happy with it.
Once the Avista Stadium renovation project is complete, the Indians will give the county a portion of their ticket sales. The team will give the county $1 for every ticket sold, with one major catch. The revenue sharing would only happen when the team surpasses 250,000 in annual attendance. If the team sold 300,000 tickets, the county would get $50,000.
The Indians drew 234,000 fans last year, but team president Chris Duff said he expects attendance to climb into the 275,000-300,000 range in the coming years. Duff noted that a cold, wet spring depressed fan turnout in 2022. On top of that, the Indians in 2022 became a long-season ballclub with 66 home games, compared to 38 in the past. Attendance will grow once fans adjust to the new schedule, Duff said.
Republican commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French said they think the county should have pushed for a better deal. They attempted, unsuccessfully, to make four separate amendments to the memorandum of understanding.
Kerns first made a motion that would have required the Indians to give 5% of their gross revenues to the county. The motion failed 3-2, with commissioners Mary Kuney, Chris Jordan and Amber Waldref opposing it.
Next, Kerns made a motion that would have required the Indians give 50 cents of every ticket to the county. That motion failed along the same lines.
French then made a motion that would have tacked an additional 3%, or a percentage consistent with the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index, onto the Indians’ rent every year. Kuney, Waldref and Jordan voted against that motion, too.
Kerns tried for one more amendment. He proposed that the county take back naming rights for the stadium – which the Indians hold and sell to Avista – and rename it Taxpayer Funded Stadium. That motion earned a big laugh, even from commissioners on the other side of the debate, but it died without receiving a vote.
“I appreciate the point that he’s trying to make,” French said, chuckling.
Duff said that if any of French and Kerns’ motions had succeeded, the Indians probably would have rejected them. The terms in the agreement represented the team’s best offer.
“This was as far as we could go,” Duff said.
Kerns said he doesn’t believe the agreement is fair for taxpayers. Spokane County should be getting a bigger chunk of the Indians’ revenues in exchange for the $8 million investment up front, he said.
The team’s proposal – of $1 per ticket after reaching 250,000 in attendance – should have been viewed as a first offer and countered, the Republican said.
“Who the hell negotiates like that?” he asked in an interview.
Waldref and Kuney both emphasized that the memorandum of understanding was reached after months of negotiation among Duff, the commissioners and county staff.
Kuney, a Republican, said the agreement is fair. She stressed that the county is only paying a third of the total project cost, while also retaining ownership of the stadium.
Waldref, Jordan and Kuney all said they believe upgrading Avista Stadium is a wise community investment that will reap economic benefits. Keeping the Indians in Spokane is also important for families, they said.
Jordan, one of the two Democrats on the commission, thanked Kerns, French and Kuney for negotiating a good deal with the Indians over the last year and a half. But he told Kerns and French he believed the county had to reach an agreement with the team quickly.
The county will lose MLB-affiliated baseball if the upgrades aren’t completed in time, Jordan emphasized. That outcome would be a “disaster,” he said, while pointing out that the Indians are already behind on construction. The team is likely to face penalties for failing to complete any improvements in advance of the 2023 season.
“We are at risk of losing minor league baseball in Spokane, that’s the reality,” Jordan said. “I appreciate the efforts to make this deal something better than it is, but we are already running behind schedule and time is running out.”
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