By Zach Hagadone
The city of Sandpoint received an unprecedented gift March 16: $7.5 million from the family of James “Jim” Russell to design and construct a new multi-use, year-round enclosed court sports facility at Travers Park to be dubbed the James E. Russell Sports Facility.
Presenting the cash donation for approval to the City Council, Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton said the size of the gift — which is larger than any that city staff had been able to find in Idaho — “can’t be underestimated whatsoever.”
“This would be such a large donation and such a wonderful gift to this community,” she said.
Still in its conceptual phase, the facility includes a multi-purpose court with striping to accommodate four new tennis courts, 16 pickleball courts and basketball, though the ultimate quantity of courts and exact configuration will be determined during design.
The building interior would feature heating and cooling for year-round use, restrooms, additional multi-use community space, storage and potentially lockers, an entry welcome desk and seating adequate for tournaments.
Stapleton said the idea for the James E. Russell Sports Facility began in July 2019, when the Russell family came to City Hall interested in making a legacy donation.
“At the time that we had that meeting I had no idea if we were talking about a bench … or what the size of the donation was or the interest or who the donation was for,” Stapleton said.
Russell was born in Sandpoint in 1933. One of six children, he was deeply involved with local sports, including at Sandpoint High School, from which he graduated in 1951 before moving on to the University of Idaho, where he is now recognized as a member of the university’s Alumni Hall of Fame for his engineering career. He passed away in 2019, at the age of 86.
Russell’s lifelong love for sports and exercise — and tennis in particular — drove the decision by his family to pursue a donation that would establish a permanent, enclosed facility for court sports at one of his favorite parks in Sandpoint.
“Mom and I cannot think of a better use for this money than to give it to the city,” said Russell’s son, Jim, who stood alongside his mother, Ginny Russell, at the March 16 meeting for the City Council.
He noted that his father had been contemplating such a gift for between 15 and 20 years, and that the facility should not be a memorial or monument — rather, a place “where life lessons can be learned and lifelong friendships can be forged for generations.”
Mayor Shelby Rognstad called it an “unbelievably generous gift that will continue to give back to the community for decades to come.”
City Council President Kate McAlister added, “It’s just overwhelming.”
“We will take care of it and use it wisely and kids are going to have a great time all year long,” she said.
Included in the $7.5 million donation would be funding for a new gateway to the facility, which will be further embellished by a separate donation of two bronze statues from Ann Hargis and Denny Liggitt, who have owned a home in Sandpoint for 40 years.
Both retired veterinarians, Hargis and Liggitt had been interested in donating an animal statue to the city but, upon learning of the Russell family’s planned gift at Travers Park — and finding out that Russell’s best friend growing up was late-local author Patrick McManus — opted to contribute to the project with two pieces by celebrated Seattle artist Georgia Gerber, whose work is well known at both the San Diego Zoo and the famous bronze pig at the Pike Place Market in Seattle.
The sculptures will represent a bear and mountain lioness with cub, paying homage to both the Russell family’s gift and McManus, the latter who featured the animals in his many stories.
Council members unanimously approved both donations, clearing the way for a request for proposal to be issued in the coming week, with construction on the facility and gateway set to be complete in October 2023.
“This is an absolute breath of fresh air,” said Councilor Andy Groat. “It’s so nice to have some great news. Love you guys.”
“The children are so lucky to have members like you as part of our community,” added Councilor Deb Ruehle.
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