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First Things First 

by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & ipping on a bottle of Propel fitness water in his office above the chamber of commerce, Eric Sawyer slides across his desk a list of softball tournaments the Spokane Regional Sports Commission (SRSC) is hunting -- tournaments currently held in Tacoma, Wenatchee, Portland, Iowa City. If Spokane were to steal them all in one year (which, he admits, would never happen), it could mean more than $69 million in economic impact.

That's why Sawyer, the SRSC's executive director, is pushing for the city to develop the area north of Joe Albi Stadium in northwest Spokane with a five-field softball complex, a baseball field, a dozen soccer fields of varying sizes, a skate park, a BMX track and a system of trails through the nearby woods. The city already has $4 million earmarked for the project. The money's been sitting in the bank since 1999, when voters approved the sale of some park land to Wal-Mart, with the caveat that they'd use the proceeds for sports facilities near Albi.

It's also why he's frustrated over the civic debate about the fate of the stadium. That debate began in 2005, when then-mayor Jim West proposed demolishing it and building new facilities at the old Playfair race course. The debate's been reignited in recent weeks as city council member Rob Crow -- who is spearheading the facilities development north of the stadium -- has suggested that shrinking the size of the stadium from 26,000 to around 6,000 seats might make it more useful.

"Our major tenant is the school district, for high school football," says Crow. "To them, 6,000 is pushing the limits of anything they would ever construct." Sawyer says that high school football drew a maximum attendance of 3,000 this last year, and Crow notes the stadium hasn't sold out for any event in at least five years.

On Monday, Crow -- who is running for council president -- will present his colleagues with a proposal to build the sports facilities on the site. Should it pass, the council would most likely put the decision to a public vote in the fall (though it has $4 million for the project, the city would probably need to sell bonds to make up the $7 million difference).

Crow's proposal doesn't call for any changes to the stadium. "I've intentionally left it off the planning process," he says. However, the new uses at the site would require extra parking that would encroach on some of the parking available to the stadium. Which wouldn't be a problem for a smaller stadium. Nor, says Crow, would it likely have an effect on the stadium at its current size, given that it hasn't needed all its parking in years.

Still, some believe the vote -- though only tangential -- would spell the stadium's demise. "I'm all for the sports and recreation development there for people," says Jim Albi, co-founder of the Friends of Joe Albi Stadium nonprofit group and second cousin of the facility's philanthropic namesake. " Joe would have been for that, too, But I'm not for shrinking the use of the stadium and the size of the stadium by taking the parking out."

He says a smaller stadium would seal Spokane's fate, crossing it off the list for any event that needed more space than what the Spokane Arena (at 10,000 seats) could hold. "History tells us we can have other things in there," he says, pointing to a sold-out Elvis Presley show at Albi in 1957, and a revival meeting there in 2002.

Potential Elvis comeback shows don't impress Eric Sawyer, though, as he eyes that list of softball tournaments. "Let's quit haggling over what's going to happen to the stadium -- let's work on this part," he says, motioning fondly to a map of potential ball fields, bike parks and swimming pools.

The city will take public comment on the Joe Albi Recreation Complex until June 25.
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