By Zach Hagadone
Sandpoint City Hall is putting the James E. Russell Sports Center on the fast track, accepting a $7.5 million gift from the Russell family in March; awarding a $7.8 million design-build contract to Tualatin, Ore.-based Emerick Construction on July 6; and anticipating final design for the court sports complex at Travers Park in six to eight weeks.
“We have an aggressive timeline for this project,” said Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton, who added that the work will be accomplished “as quickly as any design-build team ever possibly could.”
The project, which was first fronted by the Russell family in July 2019, envisions an enclosed multi-purpose court sports facility with striping intended for four tennis courts, 16 pickleball courts and basketball, though the final design is yet to be determined. The interior will be engineered to support all-season usage, including restrooms, an entry desk and seating to accommodate tournament play.
The sports center will also feature a new gateway complete with bronze statues of a bear and mountain lioness with cub, commissioned by longtime residents Ann Hargis and Denny Liggitt from Seattle-area artist Georgia Gerber, whose work is best known at the San Diego Zoo and iconic bronze pig at the Pike Place Market in Seattle.
The facility is named for James “Jim” Russell — born in Sandpoint in 1933, a successful engineer and avid tennis player who died at age 86 in 2019. Growing up, Russell was also close friends with the late-humorist author Patrick McManus, in whose books Russell served as the inspiration for the character Retch Sweeney. The bronze bear and cougar statues are in homage to McManus’ work and his relationship with Russell.
In addition to all that, the project also includes improvements to the skatepark at Travers, with an expansion not just for skating but a bike skills area.
According to the Bonner County Skatepark Association, which has been raising funds to support the expansion project, the improvements will ultimately bring the park from 5,500 square feet to 15,000 square feet.
A post on the BCSA Facebook page July 8 stated that the group currently has $300,000 in the budget for the current build, but aims to hit its goal of $500,000 “to build the best possible facility we can.”
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East Coast-based consultancy firm BerryDunn — which acquired GreenPlay about a year ago, the same company that worked with the city on its Parks and Recreation Master Plan — has been retained to lead the James E. Russell Sports Center development.
“As we work with communities around the country we really realize that what used to be a football field is now home to football, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey — multi-purpose and multi-use is very beneficial to communities as you look around the country,” said BerryDunn Manager Art Thatcher via Zoom from Virginia.
Stapleton cautioned that during development of the sports center, the use of certain park amenities will by necessity be interrupted. However, “We will be reaching out to our communities that use the current tennis courts,” she said, including the Sandpoint High School Tennis Team, and City Hall will work with those groups to find alternative places to practice and compete.
Tish Litven, a retired teacher with the Lake Pend Oreille School District, tennis and pickleball player, and who formerly headed up the Sandpoint Parks and Rec. tennis program, worried that four tennis courts would be lost to the public during the process of the development.
“They’re not going to be replaced at this point, to my understanding, in the time that it will take to build this project,” she said, adding that she hopes City Hall can work with designers and user groups to ensure that “tennis isn’t given the short end of the stick.”
That said, Litven described the Russell family’s gift as “beyond words.”
“It’s going to be something that every member of the community will hopefully embrace and enjoy for years to come,” she said.
Sandpoint City Councilor Andy Groat applauded the project, saying, “I really look at this as a way for our community to be steered and directed to getting along in a common interest.”
Sandpoint Planning and Zoning Commissioner Amelia Boyd, testifying as a citizen at the City Council meeting, thanked the Russell family for its gift — likely the largest private donation to any municipal authority in the history of Idaho: “We’re extremely appreciative of this gift,” she said.
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