Option No. 3

by Ted S. McGregor Jr.

At a city council meeting in April, an old idea resurfaced about another potential site for the convention center expansion. Although the Public Facilities District rejected the site two years ago in its fact-gathering phase, the idea captured the imagination of some members of the council along with some in the community.

Local real estate developer John Stone presented his idea of locating the exhibit hall at the west end of Riverfront Park, across from City Hall. Commonly known as Gondola Meadow, it's the site of Pig Out in the Park each Labor Day weekend.

"This thing's just full of potential if they'd just step back and take a look at it," says Stone, who has also worked on the Gonzaga University Arena Board.

Stone claims his plan could save the PFD $26 million, since the land would be free, as it is already city-owned, and because no parking would be needed, as the facility could use the River Park Square garage. Additionally, he foresees a public market as a permanent tenant as well.

"The PFD Board has never told me why this concept doesn't make any sense and why we shouldn't save this $26 million." Stone adds.

But in the PFD's "Facilities 2000" report, the alternative is addressed. "The members of the Working Group were unanimous in their concern regarding the willingness of the citizens of Spokane to give up any portion of Riverfront Park for a convention center," the report states. "Because Mr. Stone's proposed site would not be in close proximity to the Spokane Center, continued use of the existing facility would be difficult. These two challenges weighed heavily in the Convention Center Committee's elimination of this site as a feasible alternative."

Erik Skaggs, recently appointed to the PFD Board, knows a lot about site selection, as his firm's Summit site was considered, too. Metropolitan Mortgage has long since moved on, looking to other mixed use plans for its land. Skaggs believes it's too late now to consider Stone's proposal, "but it's a shame that it didn't get better attention three or four years ago."

As for saving $26 million, it's not altogether clear that would be the case. Steve McNutt, a member of the Park Board for the past seven years, says he's not sure if the city could take the land for free, but he does know it would require a vote of the citizens.

"Groups prospecting for convention sites like Riverfront Park as a kind of campus," says McNutt. "I'd be highly opposed to it. The green space is a very valuable asset in my view, and in the long run, the city would be harmed by giving it up."

As for using the River Park Square garage, while helping the failing facility is a noble intention, that may not work either. A spokesman for the garage says there are times when the garage could use more traffic, like in the mornings or on Monday or Tuesday nights, but there are other times when it's full, as on weekends. Whether the garage's shortfall and the new facility's demand would indeed match up has not been analyzed.

Still, Stone contends there's enough time to reconsider his plan and still meet the end of the year deadline for breaking ground. "I'm really disappointed that we haven't dialogued this thing well enough as a community."

Publication date: 05/29/03