The Downtown Stadium You Never Wanted

click to enlarge Elf the Musical  at the Spokane Civic Theatre in 2018. - ERICK DOXEY PHOTO
Erick Doxey photo
Elf the Musical at the Spokane Civic Theatre in 2018.

Okay, friends and neighbors.

Like many in the theater community, I've stayed relatively quiet regarding the downtown stadium recently re-proposed by Spokane Public Schools and Downtown Spokane Partnership, hoping the city would come to its senses. But the well-sponsored narrative in favor of the project demands grassroots push-back. We may not have their propaganda machine, or their corporate partners, or… uh… wait, what do we have?

I guess we still have a voice, at least until we’re drowned out by vuvuselas. But more on that later.

This is what you need to know: Among its many other problems, a stadium in the proposed location will dramatically harm Spokane Civic Theatre, a 75-year-old non-profit community theatre. And so far, no one involved in the project seems to care.

Disclaimer: I am not speaking on behalf of Spokane Civic Theatre, although that's where my loyalties lie. My views are my own and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization.

click to enlarge Henry McNulty is a musician, performer and life-long resident of the city. He served as Music Director of Spokane Civic Theatre prior to the Covid-19 pause.
Henry McNulty is a musician, performer and life-long resident of the city. He served as Music Director of Spokane Civic Theatre prior to the Covid-19 pause.

I attended Roosevelt Elementary, the Odyssey program at Libby Center, and Lewis and Clark High School. I believe strongly in the value of public education. I have deep respect and admiration for teachers. I voted in favor of the most recent school levy and all those that came before it since I turned 18.

That's why it feels strange to say that, should this proposal be approved, I'll be reluctant to do so again.

Several years ago, an advisory vote was put before the public regarding a new stadium downtown to replace the aging Joe Albi. The public said "no."

Apparently "no" means something different now. The same essential proposal is back from the dead with special interests propping up the corpse à la Weekend at Bernie's. It also enjoys the unquestioning support of many citizens, most of whom have yet to hear a cohesive counterargument.

That's because there has been no meaningful discussion of the issue, at least not from both sides. So far, the only official forum for public debate has been the SPS-run Zoom meeting that outlined the proposal. Residents were invited to speak for two minutes each, the amount of time you give to people you plan to ignore.

"SPS, you just cannot overturn such an overwhelming vote by yourselves hiding behind ‘leadership’ and ‘vision’ and that ‘the people who vote are idiots.'"

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Within the first 10 minutes, an SPS representative emphasized that voters hadn't "understood" the 2018 advisory vote. Since no fresh advisory vote has been presented, the apparent solution to this problem is to have no vote at all. What a perfect system!

To quote an unnamed participant in the subsequent ThoughtExchange survey, "SPS, you just cannot overturn such an overwhelming vote by yourselves hiding behind ‘leadership’ and ‘vision’ and that ‘the people who vote are idiots.'"

That's exactly what they think we are, and we're getting dangerously close to proving them right. SPS and Downtown Spokane Partnership failed to make the sale in 2018, so they’ve driven the same jalopy around the block, slapped on a fresh coat of paint, and offered it to us as a brand-new car.

There was another problem with the Zoom meeting’s introduction. Every nearby venue was mentioned except one: Spokane Civic Theatre.

This is part of a general trend.

Take, for example, a Spokesman-Review article on March 10, asking and answering its own questions: "Have there been any studies completed to show the impact of the stadium at either site? [The other site being Joe Albi.] In summer 2018, the district commissioned a traffic analysis which concluded that the street infrastructure was sufficient to handle traffic generated by events occurring at all three facilities (Arena, Podium, and stadium) simultaneously."

The study, invoked by some as though inscribed on golden tablets, was commissioned by SPS and has not been replicated or confirmed by the city. In its own conclusion, it states that "recommendations and conclusions should not be considered final until a more formal traffic study can be advanced and accepted[.]" No such formal traffic study has been conducted.

Considering the analysis was performed in 2017, all data now being presented regarding the yet-to-be-completed Podium sports complex is guesswork. Spokane Civic Theatre is never mentioned once, nor are its traffic and parking needs ever considered.

Let's talk about parking. 

No, please, come back! It'll be fun, I promise!

According to Downtown Spokane Partnership: "In downtown roughly 1,700 parking spaces are managed by the PFD [Public Facilities District] with an estimated 2,500 within walking distance."

Consider that bold statement! Most of the parking in question is across the river in the actual downtown. Yes, this is technically within walking distance, in the same way that the moon is within flying distance of Earth. We can make the trip, but no one does. Even counting some of the closer south-bank parking, the total is nowhere near what DSP would have us believe.

It's also worth noting that much of that parking is upwards of $10, which around here is pretty steep for the privilege of not leaping from a moving vehicle.

On a positive note, there are a limited number of additional spaces being created near the proposed building site. As outlined on the SPS website, "Property acquisition will result in 500 new parking spaces adjacent to proposed stadium and Spokane Arena, free to district patrons. Nearby Wonder Building has been renovated with a parking garage that can provide ~300 parking spaces for events."

Great. That would be an excellent solution for the parking challenges we already face. But the proposed stadium would be built over a parking lot, thereby eliminating spaces that currently exist.

(*chewing on a blade of wheat* Gotta spend parking lot to make parking lot, son. *spits*)

It may result in a small net increase, but not to the degree DSP would claim. I'm pretty sure DSP would call six inches nine with a straight face.

Such small gains are irrelevant, anyway. On a night with two shows, Civic has a capacity of around 400 (depending on the layout of the Studio Theatre). We could fill that "Nearby Wonder Building" all on our own.

The worst part is that parking challenges disproportionately affect our older patrons, many of whom have already struggled with parking for years. Walking a long distance is fine for the young and fit, but what about everyone else? Let's not pretend that the young and fit will choose to park far away so that grandma has a chance.

I've noticed a strange cognitive dissonance among proponents of the stadium. On the one hand, they'll say: what's the big deal about parking? How many people are really going to attend a high school football game? On the other hand, they'll say: We need a 5,000-seat stadium.

The “why” of that is the biggest distinguishing factor between the 2018 proposal and its 2021 premium DLC re-skin.

According to the same SPS post, "United Soccer League will bring a professional soccer team to Spokane and serve as team owner if a stadium is built downtown."

The proposal began its life as a solution for Spokane Public Schools, benefiting students and families. “It's for the kids," they shouted from the rooftops. But suddenly professional sports have entered the picture, not to mention concerts and other as-yet-unspecified uses.

This is when a hard-boiled film noir detective might growl, "Follow the money, sweetheart," through a billowing cloud of cigar smoke.

The biggest reason to build a downtown stadium is not its convenience or utility for the school district. The biggest attraction is its potential as a multi-purpose entertainment venue and all the cash-money-money that promises.

The SPS is just along for the corporate ride, and bizarrely, expected to foot the bill using our tax dollars. Well, at least we can vote it down during the next... Oh, wait.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with building another big venue. The economic impact on Spokane will (or could, if the soccer team doesn't go under) be real, as Downtown Spokane Partnership and its President/CEO Mark Richard are only too happy to highlight at every available opportunity. “A win, win, win for Spokane," Mr. Richard calls it, as he Scrooge McDucks into an Olympic-sized swimming pool of money.

Haha, okay, folks, that last part was just some constitutionally protected satire. I'm sure that in between shifts at Gringotts, Mr. Richard has our best interests at heart and that the stadium has a brilliant future. After all, what's more famously popular in America than European football?

Let's talk about sound.

Spokane Civic Theatre already suffers from local noise pollution. Music from neighboring venues has been known to bleed into the building, disrupting performances. Those venues are significantly farther away than the proposed location of the stadium. (Incidentally, that proposed location is where marching bands currently practice before parades. I assure you, we can hear them.)

Look at any of the official pictures from Downtown Spokane Partnership. The featureless, poorly-rendered box on the corner is meant to be Civic. (Thanks for the new Instagram profile pic, DSP! Super flattering!) We're positioned close enough that you could throw a stone from our building and hit the new stadium — merely an idle observation. The stadium itself is open-air, and as anyone living near Joe Albi would attest, you can hear an open-air stadium. Because it's, well, open. Somehow, no one appears to be talking about this.

click to enlarge The stadium itself is open-air, and as anyone living near Joe Albi would attest, you can hear an open-air stadium. Because it's, well, open. Somehow, no one appears to be talking about this.
The stadium itself is open-air, and as anyone living near Joe Albi would attest, you can hear an open-air stadium. Because it's, well, open. Somehow, no one appears to be talking about this.

The cost for Spokane Civic Theatre to sound-insulate the building will be astronomical. Blaring loudspeakers and cheering soccer fans (again, assuming there are any) mere yards away will have a profound detrimental impact, not just on Civic but everyone in the area. I sure am looking forward to a nice, romantic dinner on the balcony of Clinkerdagger's to the tune of "Who Let The Dogs Out."

In summary, the Civic already suffers from event traffic, parking competition, and noise pollution. All of that is prior to being sandwiched between three enormous buildings like the house in Pixar’s UP. The proposed stadium will exacerbate existing issues in ways that its proponents appear unwilling to discuss or even acknowledge.

But let's face facts. This stadium will probably happen whether the voters want it or not. There's too much money at stake and too many special interests pulling the strings.

There are still things you can do for the 75-year-old non-profit-community-theatre-that-could. You can register to attend and/or speak at the Spokane Public Schools board meeting today by visiting their website. You can contact the city and your local representatives to ask why the government isn’t paying closer attention. You can make your feelings known on social media. You can ask the tough questions.

Why are taxpayer dollars being used to provide corporate interests a backdoor to commercial development?

With all the much-touted savings for SPS, where are the millions it would take to properly sound-insulate Spokane Civic Theatre?

Where is support from the city to renovate or relocate Civic if necessary? (How many party balloons are required to generate sufficient lift, for instance?)

Where is the city’s commitment to “thriving arts, culture and historic places” as described on page 5 of the April 2021 Spokane Downtown Plan? Or was that just empty lip service?

Where is an adequate parking structure to accommodate the simple arithmetic of adding thousands of seats between two new sports complexes?

Why is sports yet again being allowed to strongarm the arts?

And perhaps most importantly, why don’t we get a vote? 

Henry McNulty is a musician, performer and life-long resident of the city. He served as Music Director of Spokane Civic Theatre prior to the Covid-19 pause.

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