By Zach Hagadone
Current and former Sandpoint city staff, elected officials, friends and members of the Russell family, as well as representatives of local court sports groups, construction crews and the media gathered Oct. 16 to witness the groundbreaking of the James E. Russell Sports Center at Travers Park.
“It’s been a while in getting here and we’re going to make it happen,” said City Council President, and current mayoral candidate, Kate McAlister in an introductory statement on behalf of Mayor Shelby Rognstad.
“This is a dream of my father’s that started nearly 20 years prior to his passing in June of 2019,” said Jim Russell, who attended the invite-only groundbreaking alongside his mother, Ginny. “That dream was to give back to the city where he was born and raised, and provide a venue for sports that could be used year-round. Today marks the next step of turning that dream into a reality.”
The Russell family gifted the city of Sandpoint $7.5 million in March 2022 to establish the sports center, which pays tribute to James Russell’s lifelong love of tennis. Though the project has been moving through City Hall since last spring, opposition has mounted in recent months centered on the feeling by many — including members of the Travers family, for whom the park was named 40 years ago — that its will be disruptive of the existing open space and playground and, most critically in the past several weeks, because of the planned removal of 20 mature shade trees, some of which were planted as memorials.
City officials have emphasized that 60 new trees will be planted and the wood from the removed trees repurposed for various elements of the sports center and its grounds, as well as the playground rebuilt using some of the existing elements and otherwise upgraded to be all-inclusive. Yet, community members have been in an uproar over what they say has been inadequate public involvement in the process — so much so that a number of residents chained themselves to a willow tree in protest for about a week in early October.
While the midday weather cooperated with sunny skies at the groundbreaking Oct. 16, the mood among dozens of protesters who gathered behind the construction fencing surrounding the future site of the 40,000-square-foot indoor tennis and pickleball facility was angry.
Chants of, “Public lands in public hands,” “Save our park” and “Put it somewhere else” punctuated the event inside the construction fencing, as well as drumming, the sound of air horns and shouts of, “You guys are cowards,” “What’s wrong with you people,” “This isn’t over” and, simply, the word “No.”
“It took a lot to get it to look like that,” said Theresa Stevens, whose late-father Frank Travers was instrumental in founding the park and whose ashes — as well as others from members of the Travers family — are also spread in the grounds.
“It took years of service and care, and now they’re going to throw it away like it’s worthless?” she told the Reader at the Oct. 16 demonstration, with visible emotion. “It’s unfathomable to me.”
Stevens and her siblings have all testified before City Council that while they have no qualms with the sports center itself, they oppose it being located at the park that bears their family’s name.
“The playground is super, the building is super, but the building is just too big for this beautiful Travers Park — it’s going to completely take away the aesthetics of Travers Park,” Stevens’ sister, Monica Gunter, told the council in May.
“I’m with my sisters,” John Travers also testified in May.
Jim Russell delivered his remarks at the groundbreaking ceremony to the din of surrounding protesters, noting that the process of establishing the sports center began in the summer of 2019, when he made the initial contact with Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton “to discuss our desire to honor my father’s wish and give back something significant to the city of Sandpoint.”
Russell said he remembered one meeting early in the conversations about sponsoring a bench with his father’s name on it at City Beach.
“I said, ‘We were hoping to do something more meaningful and significant.’ After many discussions, and learning this was a part of the city’s master plan for the parks, in March of 2022, the City Council voted to accept the joint donation from my mom and I for an indoor tennis and pickleball center,” he said.
At the time of the donation, city officials said the $7.5 million gift was the largest private bequest to any municipality in the state of Idaho that they could identify.
“Since then, and for the last 19 months, city staff and the City Council began planning, holding many community outreach sessions, online surveys and public meetings where the public could and did express their support for the center, or make suggestions, or even express opposition to it,” Russell said, later underscoring that the council voted unanimously approve the first phase construction contract amendment on Sept. 27.
“It is my sincere hope, that over time in the months and years to come after initial construction, and as improvements continue to be rolled out, that the community — including those who oppose the improvements today — come to see the positive impact these improvements have on the community as a whole and for generations to come,” he said. “I truly believe that all these improvements will make Travers Park even more popular and used by more than it is today. …
“I am confident that once completed, this facility will become a destination facility,” Russell added. “I am confident that once completed, residents of Sandpoint, as well as residents of neighboring cities, counties and states will participate in events here.”
A number of protesters remained in the parking area after attendees of the groundbreaking ceremony had left, giving media interviews, receiving honks of support from motorists passing by on Pine Street and continuing conversations about why they felt called to demonstrate.
“To me this gets lost in the trees and the playground and everything,” longtime area resident Don Holland told the Reader. “The process never included a true workshop. … That was purposefully not done, and there lies the whole flaw of it.”
Holland’s wife, Rebecca, has been among the most consistent and vocal opponents of the sports center location. She was served with a notice of trespass at the Oct. 16 groundbreaking, which among other allegations included instances of, “Making insulting, demeaning and other offensive remarks to city staff, in person and by social media,” as well as, “Attempting to harass or intimidate city staff from performing the functions and responsibilities of their job.”
The notice of trespass specified examples of “yelling and calling city staff names” and “goad[ing] and harass[ing]” staff at Travers Park on Oct. 12 and Oct. 13, and barred Holland from entering Travers Park “for any reason while construction work is being performed on the James Russell Travers Park project.”
Speaking with the Reader on the sidewalk outside the Travers Park grounds, Holland pointed to a handwritten sign as indicative of the feelings of protesters: “If these plans reflected intentional community involvement, you might not be seeing this level of community opposition.”
In a conversation with local media following Jim Russell’s remarks and the symbolic turning of dirt by the Russell family and Stapleton, City Councilor Jason Welker wondered, “Where were these people in January when we had town halls about this?”
The city of Sandpoint hosted an open house on the project Jan. 5 at City Hall that drew about 65 attendees, as well as park user groups, neighbors and council members. An open house is less formal than a town hall or workshop, through which protesters have repeatedly claimed the Travers Park plan should have gone.
Regardless, both elected officials and city staff have pointed to a number of meetings over the past year that have featured testimony on the project, as well as surveys and gatherings with various user groups.
The current location for the sports center featured on the plans at the Jan. 18 regular council meeting. Testimony at that meeting featured Holland speaking about the project as “quite overdone” and contending that the location of the sports center “hasn’t gone through any public input.”
Referring to past meetings, Welker also added, “It probably could have been in a different location if this had been a conversation people were contributing to nine months ago, 10 months ago,” however, early alternatives such as siting the sports center over the existing tennis courts or farther to the west where the softball fields are currently located prompted their own pushback.
“I was being yelled at by softball coaches who didn’t want to lose their softball fields and tennis players who didn’t want to lose their tennis courts,” he said.
As for what happens next, construction crews are on the site, though protesters indicated to the Reader that some form of complaint or other action through the courts could be in the offing.
“Hopefully we’ll have some kind of legal recourse,” Stevens said, though declined to elaborate.
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