When you drive by today, it kind of looks like it's always been there — the brick façade blending with the Flour Mill and the vintage warehouses in the neighborhood. But believe it or not, it's been 20 years since the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena opened to the public on Sept. 10, 1995. The other thing that's easy to forget is how painfully hard it was to build.
By the mid-1980s, the Boone Street Barn was on its last legs: ZZ Top refused to stop here, and Cher even told fans from the Coliseum stage that it would be her last visit until they built her a new arena. But the citizens — who, it's worth remembering, also voted against hosting the World's Fair — kept saying no.
Five public votes later, civic leaders had finally built a better financing mousetrap and — perhaps boosted by a certain pouty diva — won the public's trust. By 1995, there it was — built, but by no means yet a success.
The first event, on Sept. 17, was an NHL exhibition between the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks. And hockey really was the foundation, with the Spokane Chiefs signing on as the original tenant. (The Chiefs are set to launch another season on Arena ice Sept. 26.)
In the years since, the success we were promised — and more — has followed. The U.S. Figure Skating Championships have come to little old Spokane, while the NCAA basketball tournament has made the Arena a regular stop for both men and women. Then there's the music, with legendary shows spanning those 20 years from Garth Brooks and Elton John to Taylor Swift and Pearl Jam. As promised, Cher even came back — twice.
But for me, the Arena is more than that high you get after a killer concert — it's about civic confidence. We didn't know if we could trust ourselves to do it right — not just build it on time and on budget, but also manage it with innovation and competence. But that's just what happened, proving that smart risks can pay off, whether that's tens of millions of dollars in direct economic impact, or in seeds blooming elsewhere in the form of a downtown on the move and a growing higher ed scene.
Success breeds confidence, and confidence enables even more success — it's that way with people and cities alike. Sure, the events have added immensely to our cultural cachet, but whenever I walk through the Arena gate, I think of it as a big, giant turning point, marking Spokane's giant step from provincial outpost to becoming a city on the rise. ♦
The Spokane Arena will host a 20th anniversary open house on Friday, Sept. 25, from 5-8 pm. Details at spokanearena.com.