With a bursting belly, you’ll need to walk off the calories — this year, take a tour of the park, the hidden corners and forgotten nooks. It’s a spectacular place, and Spokane is lucky to have it. But too often, Riverfront Park is taken for granted.
I’ve been sitting in as a member of the Downtown Spokane Partnership’s Downtown Plan Update team, and it’s been an exciting discussion. Last time Spokane wrote a downtown plan a decade ago, retail was on the verge of leaving the core and the Davenport Hotel was in the wrecking ball’s crosshairs. Spokane has come a long way, and now the movers and shakers are looking at what should happen over the next 10 years.
But I’ve got to say there’s one 800-pound gorilla in the room nobody seems to want to grapple with — Riverfront Park. Somehow the subject either seems too vast or too politically protected to broach.
I think it’s the key to everything. And I’m not the first one to see it that way.
The year is 1959. Downtown Spokane is at a crossroads. A city that used to bask in the wealth of the mining districts to the east has stagnated — growth has stopped and downtown teeters on the brink of oblivion. Knowing they have to do something, downtown landowners and business leaders team up to save their investment and the city’s future by forming Spokane Unlimited.
When you stand there chomping your Italian sausage out in Riverfront Park this weekend, just know that’s where it all started. That very land beneath your feet was a tangle of rail yards and industrial flotsam, some of it spilling right into the river. How Spokane got from there to here is a long, incredible story (best told in Bill Youngs’ book The Fair and the Falls), but in the end Spokane succeeded so wildly it even landed a World’s Fair. That was our moon shot — a giant step for Spokane.
We’ve all heard about Expo ’74, and it was a lot of fun. But the lasting legacy of men like King Cole, Rod Lindsay, Petr Spurney, Jim Cowles and Sen. Warren Magnuson is Riverfront Park. These men — and many, many others — had the foresight, creative vision and work ethic to bequeath us a rare gift.
But here in 2008, nearly 50 years after the birth of the park, do we have that same kind of vision?
I titled this column “This Old Park” as a play on the great PBS show This Old House, which proves that you can’t just let your classic old house go to pot. Yes, I think Riverfront Park is badly in need of a makeover. Some things I wouldn’t change: The Carousel is perfect, as is the Red Wagon. But the kiddie attractions and the Pavilion are showing their age.
It’s a philosophical question, too — should the park be for solitude, a getaway from the urban bustle, or should it be for active use, with more amenities?
You could say Spokane Unlimited, Expo and Riverfront Park saved downtown, and I think the park can continue to save downtown — but not unless we maintain it properly. In fact, as I mentioned before, the park is crucial to just about everything downtown Spokane would like to see happen. Here’s a partial list of the amenities and potential projects that hinge on Riverfront Park: the future use of the YMCA building; the proposed Gorge Park and kayak playground; the convention center complex and possible expansions and connections there; the Post Street Bridge, which some want to turn into a pedestrian bridge to connect to Kendall Yards; a proper farmers market; the Mobius Science Center and other north bank proposals; a Native American cultural center; the IMAX theater; the ice skating rink. As for a wish list, I’ve heard everything from a water taxi service between Riverfront Park and the University District to a permanent outdoor performance space to Silverwood-quality attractions to the creation of an actual sandy beach for summer.
Fixing up this old park could be the most important thing we could do to keep Spokane on the upswing, yet we simply don’t.
The effort put forth by the last generation proves that you can do anything if you match a powerful vision with a Herculean effort. Yes, today’s financial situation is dire — we can barely afford to keep our pools open, and the Park Board is seeking Conservation Futures funds to secure the YMCA building. That’s why there needs to be a strong element of revenue-generation in the park’s future.
And there is help out there — heck, if you’ve got the bucks, you can hire Disney’s Imagineers to take a peek. I know the idea of seeking requests for proposals fills a lot of people with dread — the park is great the way it is, many say, don’t change anything. But we have no choice — it’s been 30 years since the park opened and the time to plan for the future is now.
When President Jimmy Carter spoke at Riverfront Park’s grand opening on May 5, 1978, he underlined how unique an asset Spokane had given itself.
“You’ve transformed an area that was declining,” Carter said, “that was far short of its great potential, into one of the nation’s most innovative and refreshing urban settings.”
Does Riverfront Park still fit that description?
This weekend, sip a strawberry lemonade toast to those who gave us so much, but also recognize that it’s our living room now. And we have to take better care of it.