Spokane Journal of Business

Spokane Sportsplex is closer to becoming reality

County commissioners discuss approval of key funding source for $42 million project

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-—Kevin Blocker
The proposed Sportsplex would be constructed a block east of the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. Construction could start as early as 2019, and work could be completed the following year, according to Spokane County Commissioner Al French
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For years, the idea of building a multipurpose sports complex in Spokane that could host regional and national sporting events has been on the wish lists of sports and economic development proponents alike.

A funding mechanism for such a multimillion-dollar facility, however, proved to be elusive.

Recently, however, advocates for the Sportsplex project have come up with a funding plan that would enable construction of a $42 million proposed facility on land north of downtown, known as the North Bank site.

Consequently, a wish list project appears to be on the brink of becoming a reality. 

“I think this is the most confident I’ve ever felt about the Sportsplex being built,” Spokane Public Facilities chairman Larry Soehren says. “I’m fairly confident this will happen.”

The financing plan calls for Spokane County Commissioners to sell $25 million in bonds, then loan the money to the PFD, which would oversee design and construction of the Sportsplex, Soehren says. Eventually, he says, the PFD would operate it.

The PFD, which currently operates the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, Spokane Convention Center, and the INB Performing Arts Center, subsequently would pay the county back through money it makes via a countywide sales tax and lodging tax, he says.

The city of Spokane, its parks and recreation department, and the PFD are expected to develop the facility, according to an agreement reached in March 2015. 

Additionally, the PFD has pledged $10.4 million from its own bond reserves. Meanwhile, the city of Spokane recently has committed $5 million toward the Sportsplex, Soehren says.

Another $1 million is potentially available from the PFD’s loan reserves, and the PFD has already submitted a request to the Legislature for funding to secure the remaining $1 million to $2 million balance, Soehren says.

As laid out, the project wouldn’t require a public vote, since it wouldn’t require tax dollars beyond those already generated. 

“The state piece can always be subject to interpretation, but everything seems to be lined up right now,” Soehren says. “What we have right now is the ability to add more value to the community without more tax burden.”

Spokane County Commissioners had a discussion about the Sportsplex at their Feb. 27 meeting.

Commissioner Al French says the board hasn’t scheduled a date to vote on whether to approve the sale of the bonds, although he calls the Sportsplex “a good project.”

French says it’s possible that construction of the Sportsplex could begin as early as 2019 and be completed the following year.

The sale of Spokane County bonds—and the loan of proceeds to the PFD—is the same funding mechanism commissioners used in the building of the Spokane Convention Center, French says.

“This would be consistent with what we’ve done before as the fiduciary of such projects,” French says. “I personally think this project is a good project. It’s been well-vetted, and it’s clearly got a lot of elements we would love to have in our community.”

Eric Sawyer, president and CEO of the Spokane Sports Commission, says the idea of a Sportsplex is roughly 15 years old.

“But up until about 2014 or so, has there ever been talk to the effect of, ‘Okay, how do we make this happen,’” he says.

The Sportsplex proposal calls for a 93,000-square-foot athletic complex that would include a 200-meter, six-lane indoor track, up to 10 basketball and 17 volleyballs courts, locker rooms, and a flexible multisport space, as well as a championship court that could be converted to ice.

The Spokane Sports Commissions cites a prior Gonzaga University study that estimates a new facility would generate an additional $33 million annually in direct tourism spending here.

The 10-acre site where the Sportsplex is envisioned to be located—the North Bank site north of downtown—is about a block west of the former Broadview Dairy building and a block east of the arena. 

The city of Spokane essentially would donate the land for the Sportsplex, Soehren says.

“We would pay the city $1 per year for 30 years,” Soehren says. “That’s a potentially huge contribution by the city that can’t be underestimated in all this.”

Says French, “Even when I was with the City Council, we were always looking for ways to develop the North Bank in a way that could enhance the athletic and recreational community, especially during the winter months. From what we can see, the Sportsplex does just that.”

Sawyer says the Sportsplex would make Spokane a stronger draw for tournaments and events. The nonprofit sports commission is made up of a group of local governments, businesses, and volunteers dedicated to recruiting and developing sports events.

Sawyer says the sports commission realized it was necessary to have a public entity—in this case the PFD—involved in the process of financing, constructing, and subsequently operating the facility.

The original funding plan for the proposed Sportsplex involved asking Spokane County voters to foot the entire bill for the cost of the project, which was once estimated at between $25 million and $27 million, Soehren says.

But Sports Facilities Advisory, of Clearwater, Fla., completed the feasibility study in October 2015 that concluded the Sportsplex would cost $14 million more to develop than initially estimated.

Consequently, the PFD approached the state at the beginning of 2016 requesting authorization to extend a sales tax rebate that’s available to all public facilities districts in Washington. The proposal unanimously passed the state’s House of Representatives, but failed in the Senate during the 2016 session at the beginning of that year.

Soehren says the funding request didn’t pass because some state senators believed other projects across the state were a higher priority.

In March 2015, a countywide survey revealed strong support for the Sportsplex. Among 1,500 respondents, only repairs to the Centennial Trail and enhancements to Plantes Ferry Sports Stadium received higher priority than the Sportsplex.

The acceleration of the Sportsplex project coincides with consideration by Spokane Public Schools and city of Spokane officials of a neighboring site as the potential home for a new high school sports stadium.

The potential stadium site, next to the Spokane Civic Theater, is north of the proposed Sportsplex site and has west Boone Avenue, north Washington Street, and north Howard Street serving as three of its borders. As envisioned, the civic theater would remain at its current location, at 1020 N. Howard.

Mark Anderson, the associate superintendent of support services for the Spokane school district, says the district and city representatives expect Sports Facilities Advisory to submit the results of a feasibility study next week.

The proposal calls for a 6,000- to 7,000-seat facility, however, the amount of acreage it would take for the stadium has yet to be determined, Anderson says.

The school district is looking at that site as a potential alternative to the aging Joe Albi Stadium, at 4918 W. Wellesley in North Spokane.

A study conducted by ALSC Architects PS, of Spokane, in 2013 showed a new stadium would cost an estimated $20 million to $25 million. Anderson says ALSC also is in the process of updating that original study.

As for the sports commission, Sawyer says he’s encouraged by the speed at which funding for the Sportsplex has evolved but understands challenges remain.

“To do something like this is going to have an effect on parking and traffic in that area,” Sawyer says.

Also, not all of the property in that location is city owned. City records show GW Investments LLC owns seven lots that total 17,500 square feet of land, and owns a three-story, 15,000-square-foot building at 433 W. Dean.

Despite that, Sawyer says the sports commission is excited about the prospects of a flourishing Spokane sports scene near downtown.

“You don’t see very many facilities like this in cities anywhere,” Sawyer says. “And from our vantage point, we’ve already been on the street selling it.”

Says Sawyer, “We’ve been teasing U.S. Track & Field and the NCAA about a world-class indoor track on the West Coast, something this part of the country doesn’t have. They’ve said, ‘Build it; we’ll come.’’’ 

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