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Spokane County Commission agrees to initial funding plan for Avista Stadium renovations

A rendering of Avista Stadium after improvements.
Spokane County Parks and Recreation
A rendering of Avista Stadium after planned improvements.

Spokane County’s board of commissioners voted Tuesday on a memorandum of understanding that sets basic terms for an agreement to pay for major renovations to Avista Stadium, though the vote was not unanimous, and two of the commissioners argued that the county could have gotten more in the deal.

The memorandum of understanding (MOU) sets terms for the arrangement between the Spokane Indians baseball team, and the county, which owns Avista Stadium.

The MOU quadruples the rent the Indians pay to the use the 65-year-old stadium in Spokane Valley, from $25,000 a year to $100,000. In subsequent years, the rent will increase by $2,000 annually. The agreement puts operational and maintenance costs on the team’s shoulders, rather than the county’s.

“In a sense, the county is like a landlord for this ballpark, and anytime…you can negotiate a new lease that quadruples rent and turns all maintenance over to the tenant, that’s a good day for you as a landlord,” Commissioner Chris Jordan said.

The agreement also commits Spokane County to no more than $8 million for the project. That’s in the form of matching funds, with the understanding the Indians will come up with another $8 million from its own pockets, private sources and municipal governments. The team is about halfway to that goal already. It’s contributing $2 million, and this month Spokane Valley pledged another $2 million.

And the MOU allows the county a share of ticket revenues, once ticket sales hit 250,000 or more. One provision also instructs the Indians to “encourage and facilitate” events in which third parties would rent Avista Stadium. Half of the net revenues from those rentals would be paid to Spokane County.

The MOU was approved 3-to-2. Commissioners Mary Kuney, Chris Jordan and Amber Waldref voted in favor of the agreement, and Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French voted against it.

“There has been a back-and-forth, and a figuring out, of how do we make [the renovations] affordable to our community to continue the partnership,” Commissioner Amber Waldref said. “And I think where this MOU lands is in a really good place.”

Kerns and French each said during Tuesday’s meeting that they don’t want the Indians to leave Spokane – an outcome that’s not off the table if the stadium improvements are not carried out. But they also criticized the terms of the MOU as insufficient for the county’s interest.

“I don’t want us to make a rash decision because we think the gun is pointed at our head,” French said. “I want it to be a good decision that both treats the Spokane Indians…in a fair fashion and also treats our taxpayers in an equitable position.”

Discussions about Spokane County’s role in paying for the renovations began more than a year ago, when one possibility being discussed was a bond measure that would have covered the entire bill.

Last summer, the Indians came back with a smaller request: an $11 million commitment from the county. Commissioners balked at that amount, and a before the turn of the year the commission suggested $8 million – but only in matching funds, meaning the county’s final contribution would depend on how much the Indians could raise from other sources.

But $8 million was still too much for Kerns and French, who argued Tuesday that the county got the short end of the stick.

“If we’re going to be partners on this, we need to find the win-win solution here, and unfortunately, the current MOU in front of us just isn’t it,” Kerns said.

Earlier in the meeting, Kerns expressed his displeasure through a facetious amendment he suggested that would have re-named the facility “Taxpayer-Funded Stadium.” His motion died for lack of a second, though French said he agreed with its sentiment.

French and Kerns put forth three amendments that would get more out of the team. One would have claimed five percent of the Indians’ gross revenues, which would go beyond ticket sales to things like concessions and team merchandise. Another would have claimed 50 cents from every ticket sold, instead of depending on meeting the 250,000-ticket threshold. The third would have increased the “escalator” – the rate at which the Indians’ rent increases each year. Under the MOU, the annual increase would be $2,000. French wanted to set the escalator at $3,000 a year or the CPI inflation rate, whichever was greater.

All three amendments died by 3-to-2 votes, with Jordan, Waldref and Kuney against, and Kerns and French in favor.

Kuney pushed back on assertions that the county was getting a raw deal by pointing out that Spokane County owns the stadium, and yet most of the funding will be coming from other pockets.

“It’s about $22 to $23 million to do the stadium. We’re going to put in $8 million, and we own the asset outright,” Kuney said. “To me, that’s a good deal, when you can get two-thirds of your costs covered, and we’re going to be one-third of that.”

The county’s contribution will come from the proceeds generated from selling other properties, such the 2021 sale of an auto racetrack near Airway Heights. The MOU will not result in a tax increase.

A coalition of minor league baseball teams is also asking for state funding in this year’s capital budget. If its full request is granted, Avista Stadium would get $5.8 million.

Kuney also hinted at the possibility the terms could be fine-tuned before a final agreement is inked. Jordan said time is running out to secure funding for the extensive work that needs to be done. He said the Indians have already had to ask for an extension on Major League Baseball’s deadline for required improvements.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.