Spokane set for ice skating extravaganza

SPOKANE - As the car rolled through downtown before the 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Nancy Kerrigan glanced out the window and couldn't believe what she saw.

The Olympic silver and bronze medalist, in town to serve as a TV commentator, saw depictions of skaters on the faade of the skywalks and in the windows of local shops.

“She couldn’t believe it,” said Harry Sladich, president of the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau and Kerrigan’s driver on that day. “She said, ‘This is amazing.’”

The nation’s biggest skating event is typically staged in cities such as St. Louis, Boston or Los Angeles. Spokane was one of the smallest cities to ever host. But by the time the final salchow was landed, Spokane and U.S. Figure Skating had started a torrid love affair.

That’s precisely why the event is back in Spokane starting Friday – the quickest the championships have ever returned to a city. And precisely why Spokane seemed like an ideal location for the 10-day event where the U.S. will select its team for next month’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

“Spokane is a great figure skating city,” said Scottie Bibb of U.S. Figure Skating. “The fans are passionate. There is a lot of energy at the events. The skaters loved competing there.”

In 2007, Spokane gave the championship its largest ever attendance, 155,000 over a week, surpassing the previous mark of 120,000 set in Los Angeles in 2002.

And, Sladich said, figure skating helped put Spokane on the map in terms of landing other large events.

Spokane hosted a USA-Canada women’s hockey exhibition game in October. It was in the running to host a vice presidential debate in 2008 before pulling out of the race that St. Louis eventually won.

And this year it will host four national conventions, Sladich said, including the National Rural Letter Carriers Association Convention, which Spokane beat out Phoenix to get.

While that might not sound as exciting as figure skating or college basketball (Spokane will be one of the host cities for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in March), “those conventions are huge events that will fill the entire city,” Sladich said.

Sladich credits the 2007 figure skating championships for helping start to change the national, and even regional, perspective of Spokane.

“I think the old days of Seattle looking down its nose at us have been eliminated,” Sladich said. “And we have more media than ever coming to Spokane to write destination stories.”

So when the opportunity arose to host this year’s championships, the town that now dubs itself Skate City USA jumped at the chance.

“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to host the event that will determine the Olympic team in a year when the Olympics are going to be so close,” said Barb Beddor, executive director of the championships.

Beddor says Spokane will raise the bar even higher this time. It will have four nights of outdoor medal ceremonies, live music and fireworks similar to Olympic presentations.

Tickets for the arena’s lower bowl sold out by October 2008, but there are still other tickets available. It is unclear if Spokane will top its 2007 attendance record.

Beddor says ticket sales were ahead of the ’07 pace until October. She blames the struggling economy for lagging sales.

“We might not set a new record but we’ll probably be No. 1 and 2 on the list,” Beddor said.

In 2007, the event had a $25.5 million economic impact on Spokane, according to the city’s 2010 bid presentation. Beddor says the slumping economy could also keep the economic impact of this year’s event from reaching the projected $25.7 million. Spokane paid $1.2 million to bid on the event.

Sladich says Spokane might be small but it is a perfect place for the championships because the events won’t be overshadowed.

“We went to the 2006 championship in St. Louis and I asked a number of people in restaurants and other places if they knew what it was going on,” Sladich said. “Nobody knew the figure skating championships were in town.

“I’m not saying we are more passionate than those bigger cities. We are just the perfect size to get laser focused on events like this. With an event this big, nothing else can fit here during that time. When they arrive, they own the town.”