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New indoor track and downtown stadium add logic to a vote for Spokane as 'Sports town USA'

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Madison, WI, home of the University of Wisconsin, wears the Sports-Illustrated bestowed crown, strongly disputed by several cities like Ann Arbor, MI, and Columbus, OH, as “Best Football Town in America.” There’s little dispute about Eugene, OR’s, claim to the title, ‘Track Town USA.” So comes now my sense that Spokane deserves the title. “Sports Town USA.”

But before the guffaws commence from those in the Puget Sound area where all the pro sports teams, as well as the collegiate Huskies, have large and super-loyal fan bases and tend to look down their noses at Spokane, or from California’s major cities with a similar nose problem, let me offer the points of my argument.

Stephanie Curran CEO of Spokane Public Facilities DistrictStephanie Curran CEO of Spokane Public Facilities DistrictThe idea actually came to mind as I watched high school and college runners from across the country at a track event at the city’s gleaming new indoor 200-meter track that boasts the nation’s newest and the West’s only hydraulic-banked running track, housed in the new Podium. That means the ends of the track are hydraulically elevated for sprint events and lowered for other events.

There should be little argument if Spokane claimed the title of the nation’s basketball capital. After all, it’s not only home to a Gonzaga Bulldog basketball team that dominates collegiate ranks, it also hosts on one weekend each year the 3-on-3 basketball tournament called Hoopfest which is the largest event of its kind in the world. Or as the event launched in 1989 touts itself, “the largest 3-on-3 basketball tournament on earth,” attracting a quarter-million fans, 450 courts spanning 45 city blocks, and drawing 6,700 teams.

Then of course, for the world of runners, there’s the Lilac Bloomsday Run, the 12 kilometers, 7.4-mile run that on May 1 will mark its 45th anniversary this year, celebrating the 1977 launch of the event by Spokane resident Don Kardong, who had finished fourth in the marathon at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. An amusing note is that Kardong had moved to Spokane only two years before the Olympics and was basically unknown in Spokane until his name came on television and Spokanites could watch and learn about him during and after the marathon.

An indication of Spokane’s ability to attract talent to its events, before Hoopfest began to attract global attention, is evidenced by the launch of Bloomsday. Kardong had hoped for 500 participants for the inaugural run and got nearly triple that. The second edition had over 5,000 and the third, in 1979, attracted 10,000 runners, with 50,000 spectators lining the streets.

As Stephanie Curran, CEO of the Spokane Public Facilities District that manages the new Podium and several other facilities, told me in an email: “I believe we are the model of how cities can grow and develop their public facilities,” pointing out that the PFD also manages a convention center, performing arts center, arena and new stadium under construction. “We literally manage one of every venue type. We are blazing a trail.’

Among the facilities under the oversight of the PFD will soon be the new downtown stadium to replace 70-plus-year-old Albi Stadium, located in northwest Spokane, which has primarily been the home of high school football over those seven decades.

Marty Dickinson chair of Spokane Public Facilities DistrictMarty Dickinson chair of Spokane Public Facilities DistrictThe Spokane Public Schools board, after three years of controversy that included an advisory vote in 2018 in which nearly 70 percent of the vote favored building a new stadium on the site of Albi Stadium, voted last April to approve construction of the $31 million, 5,000-seat stadium at the downtown site. Support, including financial concessions, from the downtown-business community’s Downtown Spokane Partnership as well as the PFD, tipped the scales in favor of the downtown location.

Curran, in praise of the stadium decision, said: “The School Board ultimately demonstrated bold leadership and made the best decision for the community. While not everyone agrees, I am confident in the end they will realize the opportunities the downtown location will provide will be amazing for our students and our community.”

The new stadium, being built across the street from the Podium, won’t just be the home to high school football, but to two new soccer teams, men’s and women’s teams in the United Soccer League, which touts itself as “the largest and fastest-growing professional soccer organization in North America.” Landing the two soccer teams was part of the downtown location payoff.
Spokane Sports CEO Eric Sawyer explained, of both the Podium and the new downtown stadium that opens next year: "we sat down a number of years ago to create a roadmap for sports in our region and a key conclusion was we needed a multipurpose sports complex to attract visitors in winter months. And realizing that Albi had to be replaced, there was a conversation on where to build a new one.”

“So we thought maybe downtown and make it something more than a high school football stadium so the final outcome of both the Podium and the new stadium was getting all the stars aligned,” explained Sawyer, whose non-profit marketing organization has a mission to recruit and develop sporting events.

He added that with those stars now aligned, he can look to retire next year when he turns 65.

The $54 million Podium, which sits high on a 15-foot basalt outcropping and overlooks downtown Spokane and is connected to Riverfront Park, opened in December and takes its next high-visibility step this weekend when it hosts USA Track & Field Indoor Championships that serves as the qualifying meet for the World Athletics Indoor Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, March 11-13.

Curran reflected in her email to me on the past that helped bring about the present and future.
“If you look at the history of Spokane and how Expo ’74 almost 50 years ago changed the trajectory of Spokane, I fully believe what we are doing in Spokane now, especially on the North Bank where the Podium, Arena, and Downtown Stadium are located, we are the next Expo (the World’s Fair for which Spokane became the smallest city ever to host the global event),” Curran said. “We are changing the trajectory of Spokane through Sports and Entertainment and driving money into our economy at the exact time it is needed post Pandemic.”

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, discussing the emerging challenge of rising home prices and national attention that are part of that trajectory, said “Spokane has been discovered.” And the PFD And Spokane Sports are seeking to do their parts in providing things for those in other parts of the country to discover.

If the line “a river runs through it” were ever applied to an urban area, it would nowhere have more import than Spokane. The entire downtown area of the city abuts the Spokane River, which not only has the largest urban waterfall in the nation there near downtown but attracts activities and recreation to the shore and thus to adjacent downtown. So the downtown core of Spokane is never going to be diminished by future events, as is being feared for Seattle and San Francisco as the remote-work and blended-work phenomenon takes hold. And additions like the stadium and the Podium only ensure the future of downtown as well as the city surrounding it.

With nearby ski resorts and numerous lakes in both Eastern Washington and adjacent Northern Idaho, outdoor sports and activities offer as much newcomer lure for Spokane as organized sports events. But reputations are built on organized sports.

Marty Dickinson, chair of the PFD, praised sports investment as “the great connector in our community.” Dickinson, who was executive vice president of Spokane-based Sterling Bank and its successor Umpqua Bank said sports “serves as a wonderful convenor of diversity, unifies us and inspires many and along with that it is an economic driver.”

Referring to the Podium, Dickinson, who now also chairs the Washington State University Board of Regents, said “being able to provide a public space of this quality and share it with so many while also continuing to drive economic vitality into our region is something that everyone is very proud of.”

Spokane Sports CEO Eric SawyerSpokane Sports CEO Eric SawyerBecause it’s an entity partly funded with taxpayer dollars, how they handle that responsibility is clearly a part of the PFD's success. And as Paul Read, publisher of the Spokane Journal of Business and PFD vice-chair, told me in a phone conversation: “I’ve always been impressed with their stewardship of the public dollars.”

While the leadership and vision of the PFD and Spokane Sports have written a success story for a city that is attracting attention as a place to live for those tired of the pace and costs of Seattle and California cities, it’s important for the city to recognize those whose belief in the place came years ago.

I’m thinking of Bobby Brett, one of baseball’s most famous brother acts, who guided the Brett brothers to buy the Spokane Indians, now part of the High-A West baseball league, 36 years ago and in 1990 added the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League to their Brett Sports lineup.

But back to the Sports Town USA premise, I tossed out at the top of this column. Interestingly the PFD CEO Curran told me in her email, not yet being aware of this column, she had thought about “Sports Town USA” and suggested it to the county commissioners. And she seemed enthused that they opted for the name Sports County USA.

It's an understandable decision for the elected commissioners since the city of Spokane Valley, with its 106,000 population, almost half of Spokane's 229,000, might feel somehow slighted and thus upset.

That would seem a remote concern. And sadly, "Track County USA," would seem less likely to gain much traction for the city’s image if it’s promoted around the country. Hopefully, the marketing people find a way to bring “Sports Town USA” to fruition.

The city merits that title and in fact, it will add to the growing attraction it has evidenced with potential new residents, including those from Seattle and the West Side, as well as California.
 
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Alaska Airlines' 'magical' Spokane Fantasy Flight

When 67 Spokane area orphans and homeless kids and their elves take off Saturday from Spokane International Airport for a "flight" to the North Pole to meet Santa, it will be proof of both the "impossible things" that head elf Steve Paul believes in as well as evidence of "The Magic Dust of Caring" that seems to settle on those involved.

This year's Fantasy Flight is aboard an Alaska Airlines 737-900. This trip to the North Pole has been an annual event in Spokane, with little visibility, for almost 20 years. But it wasn't until Alaska got involved in 2008 at the request of Paul, president and CEO of the 501c3 that
  
Steve Paul and Santa-bound child

oversees details of the event, that the real magic arrived as well.

Paul, president of Northwest North Pole Adventures (NNPA), has guided details of the yearly event since 2000. The senior IT Project Manager at Ecova, an energy management company based in Spokane, spends much of the year preparing for the flight. He works with social agencies that select the children, gathers sponsors and oversees details like elf selection, all on a $200,000 budget that includes in-kind, like the Alaska flight.
Alaska pilot and happy child 
Originally United was the airline partner and provided the little organization that was then called North Pole Adventure with a plane that, once loaded with the children, taxied around the airport before coming to a stop at Santa's place.

But when United was unable to provide a plane in 2007, Paul recalls: "we threw together the 'magic buses' to get from the Terminal to the North Pole."

ThenPaul approached Alaska, which not only agreed to provide the plane but executives asked the event-changing question: "is there any reason why we don't take them up the air for the trip to the North Pole?"

Since then Alaska's employees have not only been enthusiastic participants, but often compete to be part of the crew.

"It's fair to say that Spokane Fantasy Flight...has as much of an effect on Alaska and Horizon employees as on the children who are treated like kings and queens for a night," said Alaska Airlines Chairman and CEO Brad Tilden.

To ensure the selection process for these children is reaching the most deserving, NNPA works only with the area's social agencies, which use their selection and screening processes to pull the children who desperately need to create positive Christmas holiday memories. Each child may only attend once in their lifetime.

So Saturday afternoon the children, age 4-10, are brought to the airport where each meets his or her "buddy elf." Then, with the help of the TSA workers, who look the other way as metal jingle bells on the kids' and elves' clothing set off alarms, they all pass through security and board the Alaska flight.

I first learned of the event a half dozen years ago from my friend, Blythe Thimsen, then editor of a Spokane magazine who was to be an elf that year, an experience she subsequently wrote about and sent me a copy of the article.

Retelling and updating the story has been my holiday gift to readers of The Harp since then because it's a story of human caring and compassion that won't get old.
I asked Paul, who puts on the uniform and becomes Elf Bernie for the day, for some details of preparation of the volunteer elves.

As evidence that nothing is left to chance, he told me the elves are advised on how to play their roles convincingly, being told to choose an elf name and "make certain your elf character fits you and get comfortable in your new identity."
The elves' prepping includes knowing how to answer questions from the children. For example, if asked what their jobs is, they say "I fix broken toys, using toy tools," and if asked how old they are, to say "I am 438 this year which is still young for an Elf."

As the flight nears its conclusion, the passengers are told to pull the window shades down and chant the magic words that will allow them to land at the North Pole. As the kids pull down their shades and do a chant, each waves a magic light wand they were given as they boarded.

The North Pole, where Santa and Mrs. Clause, real reindeer and a full complement of elves await, is actually a hanger on the other side of the airport. The ownership of the hanger has changed three times but each new owner has quickly joined the event. 
"Honestly, Spokane is the North Pole and we have an airline that is passionate about serving this adventure," said Paul, with his perpetual enthusiasm on display.
"You know, Mike, it feels like this is what I am supposed to do," he said. "It's not like I must force myself or convince myself to work on this. There's no regret of other things I could be doing. I'm both proud and very humbled. The donors fund and support us to ensure we have an amazing event each year. The volunteers literally crawl over each other to get selected to do their duty."

Paul added: "I know I can't fix the situations in life that have brought these children to the place we find them. But I can give them a brain full of amazingly magical memories of a day when they took their first airplane ride, when they touched their first reindeer and had their own elf as best friend, and met Santa in his North Pole home."
"I always believe in amazing and impossible things," he added.
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Spokane deserves a role in Washington Redskins' look back on key anniversary

The Washington Redskins kicked off the celebration of the 80th anniversary of their NFL franchise this summer with a two-month Thank You Tour that brought players, coaches, cheerleaders and personnel to pre-season pep rallies across Redskins' fans land. Spokane obviously wasn't one of the stops on the tour, but somehow the Inland Northwest's unique tie to the Redskins should be remembered. In fact, it's a bit amusing that the Redskins owners are celebrating the birth of the franchise 80 years ago - in Boston -- when it was 75 years ago, the Diamond Jubilee, that the franchise re-located to Washington, D.C. It was with that move to the Nation's Capital that the Spokane chapter in Redskins history began when owner George Preston Marshall hired Ray Flaherty, then ending his playing career as a star end for the New York Giants, as the new team's new coach. The Giants had drafted Flaherty more than a decade earlier after his college career at Gonzaga, a virtually unknown little Jesuit school in Spokane. Flaherty launched his coaching career in style for that 1937 season, bringing the Redskins and their new city the franchise's first NFL title as they defeated George Halas' Chicago Bears on a frozen field, 28-21. Over the next six years, until World War II interrupted his coaching career and he joined the Navy, Flaherty was perhaps the most successful NFL coach of his time, winning two national titles and making it to the title game on two other occasions, posting a 56-23-3 record. Only Halas, whose Bears' 73-0 victory over the Redskins in the 1940 title game was the worst championship-game drubbing in NFL history, might have been viewed as Flaherty's equal. The prestige and power of being a prominent professional football coach never made Flaherty forget his Spokane roots as he returned home each off season to visit with and be lobbied by old friends about the latest Gonzaga football star. Thus each year, Flaherty drafted the top Gonzaga backfield star, creating the improbable result that a world championship pro football team (the 1942 Redskins squad) would have three of its backs from a little college in Spokane, including brothers Ray and Cecil Hare. On occasion, the Hares were starters. And Flaherty even brought the entire team West in 1939 in what was likely the first coast-to-coast training trip as the redskins held their training camp at what was then Eastern State Normal School (now Eastern Washington University) in Cheney, just southwest of Spokane. Gonzaga itself, which was among a host of tiny private colleges that in the '20s and '30s nursed the illusion of being the next Notre Dame, discontinued college football with the outbreak of World War II. Thus things like the Redskins-Flaherty connection are the kinds of memories important to keep alive for a lot of Bulldog fans, aware that before there was basketball at Gonzaga, there was a degree of prominence on the football field. But it wasn't just the Gonzaga connection that is a part of the Inland Northwest's tie to Washington Redskins, for 50 years after Flaherty arrived in Washington, the Redskins drafted a Washington State University quarterback named Mark Ripien. Ripien, who was born in Calgary but grew up in Spokane, starred for the Cougars in Pullman. But in the pro ranks he became one of the NFL's most feared quarterbacks and guided the Redskins to a 37-24 Super Bowl victory over Buffalo in 1991, being named the game's Most Valuable Player after passing for 292 yards and two touchdowns. Both Flaherty and Ripien are in the Redskins' Hall of Fame. In an interview with Flaherty in 1968, I asked how it was that the player generally regarded as the best to come out of Gonzaga, Tony Canadeo, eluded Flaherty to become a Green Bay Packer. Canadeo, who earned the nickname "The Gray Ghost of Gonzaga" because of his prematurely gray hair, became the first Packer to rush for more than 1,000 yards (1,052) in 1949, only the third player in the NFL to that time to achieve that mark. Flaherty recalled that he intended to have Canadeo on the Redskins' roster, but figured as a player from a tiny school in Spokane, that Canadeo would still be available in later rounds of the draft and he could use his early picks for other players. "I tried my darndest to talk the Packers out of Canadeo," Flaherty recalled in the interview. "But they seemed pretty suspicious about why I was so anxious to have him so decided to keep him. I had a lot of trouble with the Spokane folks over the fact I failed to get him." Descendants of Flaherty and the Hare brothers, as well as others whose ancestors were part of Gonzaga football, and Ripien and his family and a whole cadre of WSU football fans, would be more than enthusiastic participants if the Redskins should come up with an event to recognize the franchise's Spokane tie.
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