by Howie Stalwick

The Sports USA Sports Complex is one heck of a gym -- you know, in the same way that the Taj Mahal is one heck of a mausoleum.

The range of sports activities and other services planned at Sports USA is all but unparalleled anywhere in the world. Eight basketball courts and five volleyball courts occupy much of the Spokane Valley facility, but even more will be offered.

We're talking about middle school dances and high school graduations... special emphasis on programs for youths, families and people with disabilities... sponsorships of everything from needy children to tournaments to courts to score tables to podiums to outdoor marquee signs... all-day summer camps with optional education classes through the Sylvan Learning Center... a cafe with wireless Internet... a sports equipment and uniforms shop... car and trade shows... kickball, dodge ball, Wiffle ball, badminton and roller hockey... gymnastics meets and wrestling tournaments... company functions... weddings and receptions... sports clinics... fitness equipment... exercise classes... a walking area... batting and golf lessons... video and other services for college athletic prospects...

Oh, and did we mention that preliminary plans are already being made to add a domed facility suitable for everything from Little League baseball to college softball? Or that future expansion might include indoor track, football and/or soccer facilities? Or that the entire operation is a 501(c)(3) organization?

Sports USA is the brainchild of Kert ("It always gets misspelled") Carlson, the 37-year-old owner of Spokane's Stadium Sports uniforms, screen printing and embroidery business. Carlson has teamed up with 22 other investors, including former Spokane produce company executive Nick Pupo, to finance the 56,000-square-foot, $4.3 million facility that Carlson plans to open to the public on Feb. 2.

"It's for kids," Carlson says simply. "That's why we're doing it."

Obviously, there are plenty of activities planned for adults, too. But Carlson says he was inspired primarily by the area's need for more indoor sports facilities for youth and people with disabilities.

Carlson says Sports USA hopes to land enough sponsorships to provide 250 low-income kids with free annual memberships, plus equipment, shoes, T-shirts and two camps or clinics. In return, those boys and girls would be asked to work a few hours as volunteers at Sports USA, and to become part of a mentoring program at the facility.

"We want to try to take that piece of clay," Carlson explains, "and have him rub shoulders with Gail Cogdill or whatever and say, 'You can be someone.'"

Cogdill, the former Detroit Lions football star from Lewis and Clark High School and Washington State University, is part of the "Fab Five" of noted local sports figures who are supporting Sports USA as spokespersons and instructors. Others are former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien, ex-Major League shortstop Kevin Stocker, former NBA guard Craig Ehlo and ex-WNBA guard Stacey Clinesmith.

"We are so excited about doing this for kids and families," Cogdill says.

"The impact it will have on our local athletes and athletes with disabilities is immeasurable," Stocker says. "I'm excited to be part of this facility."

One of the many unique aspects of Sports USA is a plan to form basketball leagues consisting of players cut by their respective high schools. Prep coaches will be encouraged to provide their playbooks so players can work on their games and prepare to try out again the following season.

"If a high school coach has 85 kids turn out for basketball, 45 will make the (three or four) teams," Carlson says. "What happens to the other 40 kids? Let's let them play. Forty kids at 11 schools, that's 440 kids."

"Too many of our kids are excluded, not included," Pupo says. "The ones who are excluded are the ones who need to be included the most. They're the ones who, sometimes, are considered not smart enough, or not athletic enough."

Sports USA representatives have been active in the community, contacting prospective sponsors, business associates and participants. Carlson estimates the facility will soon draw 1.6 million people a year, many of them out-of-town guests who will seek lodging, dining and entertainment.

"We still need a lot of support from the community," Sports USA representative Bob Alexander stresses. "These things don't run cheap."

Those wishing to help can do so for as little as $75, which buys an engraved, tax-deductible brick on the "Walk of Donors" entryway and helps pay for low-income youth memberships. And if you really want to help... well, the facility naming rights are still available for $1 million.

Cash or check, we presume.

The Sports USA Sports Complex is located 1 mile east of the Barker Road exit off Interstate 90, just north of the freeway. The facility is scheduled to be open to the public on Feb. 2. Discounts on charter memberships -- the fees never rise and can be passed on to future generations -- are being offered through Feb. 29 for a total of 1,000 members. Various corporate sponsorship programs are available. For information, contact any Sports USA representative, or phone principal owner and founder Kert Carlson at (509) 370-0944 or (800) 736-5541.

Publication date: 1/29/04

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