By now, everybody’s voiced their druthers on the stadium issue, either by ballot, online survey, meeting room soapbox or letter to the editor.
Well, almost everybody.
I know a guy without a mailbox, a laptop or a set of wheels. But he’s been at every game for 24 years, and in spirit long before that. Pretty certain he’d have a take on the matter, even if it meant I’d have to scale a fence and risk a trespassing charge to hear it.
And sure enough, he’s still there: Section 22, row H, seats 15 and 16. Wrecking ball hasn’t found him yet.
“You’ve got a good bronze going for early May, Joe,” I said.
“It helps if you start out that way,” he answered.
“I came to ask you about the stadium everybody’s arguing about, but before that I have to know: Are you Joe Albi, the namesake of this place, or Joe Fan?”
“Me?” Joe asked. “I’m toast.”
“No way. Surely, they’ll find you a seat – well, two – in the new stadium.”
“I don’t know. I read this new soccer team that’s a lock to locate here is going to draw 4,000 people a night, which means a sellout at least every other game. Might not be room for old Joe.”
“You read that?”
“Yeah, a newspaper blows through here every once in a while. When the wind kicks up, there’s not enough heft to keep those Monday editions on anyone’s front porch.”
“Oooh, low blow, Joe.”
“Deal with it. Anyone who reads your stuff has to.”
“So what do you think – build the new stadium downtown or right back here?”
“Oh, I’m not a big ‘where’ guy,” Joe said. “Seems like the No. 1 thing is to get it built. The No. 2 thing – and this got learned the hard way – is not to let it fall apart. You know, this relic was originally going to be adjacent to the Fairgrounds. Then this land became available. After some back and forth, we decided to build here.”
“How much debate?”
“Lasted about a month. How long has the current haggling gone on?”
“Three years,” I said.
“Hah! So construction will be done in, what, another 10? Schools will be dropping football by then. Some of these teams I see have half the kids they used to. Anyway, didn’t the voters overwhelmingly decide to put it out here?”
“Just an ‘advisory’ vote. And the nays and downtown interests and politicians immediately said the people didn’t understand what they were voting on.”
“Heck of a strategy,” Joe mused. “ ‘Voters, you were smart enough to put me in office but too stupid to grasp geography.’ ”
“But the Public Facilities District says it’ll save the school district money if they run it. And you have to admit, downtown is the more central location.”
“Is that really the issue? Look, the kids and parents who want to go to high school football will get to the games, here or downtown. It’s just that not many do now. You might see a bump at a downtown stadium at first, but the newness will wear off. Schools and coaches and parents have too much to do as it is, but there needs to be some sort of marketing arm. The things that drive you crazy about minor league baseball – the sideshows and never a second of dead air? Those are absolutely the kinds of things that have to happen at high school games, with teenagers especially. Look at the basketball rivalry games. Coaches hate ’em, but the gym’s full. If it’s really about participation.”
“I don’t know, Joe ...”
“The guy whose name is on this place understood that. He loved the games. He loved the fun more.”
“The thing is ...”
“It’s not about high school football, is it?”
“Not very much. They’re hyping this pro soccer team that doesn’t exist yet and concerts and the economic impact to the city.”
“A little advice,” Joe said. “When you hear the words ‘economic impact,’ check your wallet. Because that’s where the impact is figures to be, and not because it’s getting fatter.”
“You’re not a big soccer guy, are you?”
“Not true,” he said. “It confused me at first, but it’s a really good game. Then again, I had no choice but to warm to it. I can’t move or close my eyes. So tell me about this 4,000 fans a game.”
“That’s their projection,” I said. “The league’s average attendance in 2019 – before the pandemic – was 1,911. Lansing drew 2,788 and folded after one year because they made just half of their revenue projections.”
“And how many of those 1,911 were coming from out of town and staying in hotels and impacting the economy?”
“OK, look – I have no dog in this hunt,” Joe said. “This money – $31 million – was approved for a high school stadium, right? If it’s really that much better for kids to play downtown, build it downtown. And if doing so saves the school district some coin, great – although if the PFD takes on a facility that sits empty 300 days a year, sounds like it’s the savings will just come out of some other pocket. But don’t build it downtown just for some civic chest-pounding, especially based on fudged expectations.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know who built Albi? Clubs, with gambling money. Everyone from the Athletic Round Table to VFWs to the Spokane Press Club. The whole tab. Nobody was piggy-backing off school money to try and make a buck.”
“Will I see you at the new stadium, Joe – wherever it is?”
“Probably. I survived Jim West trying to turn me into condos 15 years ago. I can probably survive this.”