Approaching its 40th birthday, Riverfront Park is showing its age and will require millions of dollars in upgrades to return it to peak condition, say several proponents of the popular downtown destination.
Two bridges in the park, which was created as the setting for Expo '74, are showing structural weakness and need repairs. The Looff Carrousel structure could use a new roof and expanded space. Questions loom about the IMAX theater's future, such as whether to install a digital projector system to keep up with film industry changes.
In July, the Spokane Park Board approved a first phase of a Riverfront Park master plan that includes concepts for the park's future use and potential upgrades. The Park Board is working with Mayor David Condon and others to firm up details for a bond measure that's expected to go before voters by November 2014.
Landmarks such as the Pavilion, Clock Tower, and Looff Carrousel remain central, likely with some sprucing up or modernizing.
Other park spaces could get a reshuffle, perhaps including moving a children's amusement ride area to the park's north bank, and creating a level grassy courtyard south of the Pavilion for major events. Ideas also include extending the gondolas to the Spokane Convention Center, creating a central pedestrian walkway, and creating new development through private-public partnerships on park property along the north bank of Spokane River.
"We're coming right up on the 40-year anniversary of Expo, and it's important for us to have a conversation in the community about what is the legacy we want to leave for Riverfront Park," says Spokane City Councilman Mike Allen, the city council liaison on the Park Board.
In the interim, a few projects are under way or expected, such as repairs to the carrousel structure's roof next year.
Also, Walker Construction Inc., of Spokane, has started work under a $485,000 contract to build a 1,200-square-foot structure near the Rotary Fountain to house concessions and restrooms, which will replace portable trailers for restrooms. The permanent facility is scheduled to be done by May.
Last month, a nonprofit called Friends of Riverfront Park formed to seek donations from businesses, foundations, and individuals toward other park upgrades and capital projects.
Allen cites a tourism study completed by Randall Travel Marketing Inc. earlier this year for Visit Spokane and partnering organizations that found almost three-fourths of visitors to Spokane come to the 100-acre Riverfront Park. The study recommends making park updates to boost tourism-related activity.
"The downtown park...needs to continually be made fresh and user-friendly," the study says.
Allen adds, "The park is tired. It's going to need a substantial investment coming in the near future. Again, the tourist dollars it brings in and the fact that it is a jewel of our city, we have to do some things to make sure it doesn't decay."
Members of the new Friends of Riverfront Park say they will raise funds from community sponsors for both immediate upgrade needs and future onesfrom small to large projects.
The group includes founders Don Allen and his wife, Marlene Allen, who are retired Liberty Lake residents. In recent years, the couple sold two Spokane businesses, including a company that is a sourcing website for electronics called eChips Online, previously located in the Paulsen Building downtown, and a Taco Del Mar franchise in River Park Square. They aren't related to Mike Allen.
Don Allen says the city department has had to cut some routine maintenance work amid tighter budgets. He used to walk almost daily in the park when working downtown, and he and his wife regularly attend events held there, from Bloomsday to Pig Out In the Park.
He adds, "It's just endless what needs to be donenew pathways, historical markers, extending the gondolas, new parking lots. We met with the Park Board in November, and I told them, 'We'll go get sponsors.'"
A similar organization, Friends of Manito Park, says in its website that is has raised more than $708,000 to fund more than 60 projects in that South Hill park since it was formed in 1990. While a friends group for Riverfront Park existed previously, it disbanded several years ago, Allen says.
For future park projects and use, the first-phase master plan divides the focus among four quadrants. They include: the north bank, which is north of the Spokane River and below the arena; a west park area that is east of Post Street and includes Canada Island and a conservation space that formerly held the YMCA; the central park spaces that include the IMAX and Pavilion; and a south area near Spokane Falls Boulevard between the SkyRide attraction and the Red Wagon sculpture.
General ideas include creating a more defined north-south pedestrian corridor and a "river walk" system throughout the park.
"A lot of the detail work will happen when we start on phase two of the master plan in early 2013," says Craig Butz, Parks and Recreation Department manager of Riverfront Park. "We see a lot of public input in the process."
Adds Randy Cameron, Park Board president, "Our goal is to be on the ballot for November 2014."
Next year, Cameron says input will be sought from businesses, neighborhood councils, school districts, community groups, and others toward creating a final master plan. A third phase will involve cost analysis. By spring or summer 2014, proposals are expected to be presented to voters.
Pavilion, Carrousel, and IMAX
"One idea is the potential of converting the Pavilion area into an amphitheater, partially covered," Butz says, for concerts and live theater. This concept could include some cover for the Pavilion area, which has long had only its metal frame and wire shell that originally supported a tent cover for Expo '74.
He says the ideas include improvements to the ice rink as well, and renovating the Looff Carousel building or erecting a new structure a few feet away to create space for parties and the gift shop.
The IMAX theater, which Butz says has had net operating losses of about $150,000 a year for the past few years, could require more immediate focus. He says the Park Board plans to discuss soon whether to close the IMAX theater for six months a year, keeping it open from March through Labor Day.
"The challenge with the existing building is there are very few opportunities to use that type of building," Butz says. "It was just meant to be a theater. It would be hard to make it something else."
Upgrades to install digital system equipment would cost roughly $450,000, he says. That step would be required by 2014 in order for the theater to offer what he calls "delayed" new releases of movies, as the film industry abandons traditional 35mm and 70mm film production. He adds that the theater could continue showing older films, including education and nature films.
In 2009, one of the 20 theaters in the AMC River Park Square multiplex was retrofitted with an IMAX digital projection system and larger screen to show new-release IMAX movies.
Randy Cameron adds, "The IMAX is something we're concerned with: Is there a future for IMAX, and what does that future look like?"
Other concepts include whether to modernize the mechanism for keeping the Clock Tower time, while keeping the historic equipment, features and chimes intact. Regularly, a parks and recreation department employee has to climb the tower to wind the clock by hand.
Butz says two of the three major bridges in the park require structural restoration and show some cracking in their footings. They include what's called the South Howard Street Bridge, directly north of the Rotary Fountain, and what's commonly called the blue bridge, which runs north of the area between the former YMCA building site and IMAX.
"Two of the three major bridges that align Howard Street that goes through the park are on limited lifespans, to the degree we've had to restrict vehicle weight and even pedestrian weight," Butz says.
A third bridge to the north, part of Howard Street near Mallon Avenue heading south into the park, has longevity, Butz says. For the bridge near the fountain, he says the department has fenced off the central portion of the bridge to keep traffic to the outside.
"The bridge is stronger on the outside areas, so we're extending the life of the bridge," he says.
The blue bridge has structural concerns for exterior sidewalks that are separate sections, or appendages, to the bridge. "We had to fence off those," Butz says.
"Restoring the bridges, that will be a big-ticket item," he adds. "We'd likely fund some type of new bridge or some renovation to allow only a pedestrian bridge."
Overall, placing park improvements before voters, and any potential boost from the new Riverfront Park friends group, are steps that could help prepare the park for the next 40 years, Butz says.
"The SkyRide and the fountain," he says, "are pretty much the only major improvements we've had to the park in decades."
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