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Originally published October 8, 2009 at 12:08 AM | Page modified October 8, 2009 at 9:55 AM

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Spokane becomes 'Skate City USA'

While much of the sporting world is focused on the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., Spokane is getting ready for its own moment in the spotlight: hosting the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January. Spokane also hosted the event in 2007.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Hot tickets on ice

For information about tickets to the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, see www.spokane2010.com.

For tickets to the Oct. 16 U.S. vs. Canada women's hockey game, see www.spokanearena.com/qwesttour.

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SPOKANE — The fireworks — four nights' worth — have been ordered. Outdoor victory ceremonies are being arranged. Ten hours of live network TV coverage is planned.

While much of the sporting world is focused on the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., in February, Spokane is getting ready for its own moment in the spotlight.

Moment? Make that 10 days.

Reprising an event it held just three years ago, Spokane starting Jan. 14 will host the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

It's the first time in a half-century the championships have come back so quickly to a host city, and although it's not exactly the Olympic Games, it's a bona fide part of the Olympic picture, since it will determine the American figure-skating team for Vancouver.

"Figure skating is the biggest sport of the Winter Olympic Games, with the greatest demand for tickets and the highest ratings. And this is the biggest event in the run-up to the Olympics," said Barb Beddor. "For Spokane, this is a home run."

Beddor can be forgiven for mixing her sports metaphors. She and her husband, Toby Steward, run Star USA, the sports-promotion company that organized Spokane's bid for the skating championships.

They also helped Spokane land an Oct. 16 exhibition game between the U.S. and Canadian women's hockey teams, two of the favored teams headed to Vancouver in a sport which, for women, has been an Olympic event only since 1998.

Figure skating, hockey and the national exposure they draw are feeding Spokane's claim to the title "Skate City USA."

While most Western Washington communities are uncertain they'll see a significant bump in tourism from the Vancouver Olympics, Spokane officials estimate the skating championship will generate $25.7 million in economic activity — including more than $1.3 million in state and local taxes.

"You won't be able to come into Spokane in that 10-day period and not know this is going on," Beddor said. "It will be impossible to miss."

For fans from around the Northwest, the championships in Spokane could offer a way to see Olympic-caliber skating in person, without having to get very lucky or spend a small fortune to see the same routines performed in Vancouver.

It takes a village

An army of some 700 volunteers is being assembled in Spokane to do everything from drive shuttle vans to serve food to sharpen skates. Youngsters from local figure-skating clubs have volunteered to be "sweepers," who skate across the ice to pick up stuffed animals and fabric flowers thrown by fans after a skater's performance.

"This is a great boost for skating here," said LaVonne Elliott, president of the Lilac City Figure Skating Club. Her 9-year-old daughter, Kayleigh, was a "sweeper" in 2007 and has volunteered to do it again in January. "We got to watch all the skating from the front row," Kayleigh beamed.

It hasn't been all smooth skating for organizers. They had hoped for $600,000 in state support, to match the $600,000 contributed by local government and businesses. But the cash-strapped Legislature cut the appropriation to $200,000, then eliminated it entirely.

The decision sent Beddor and Steward scrambling for additional sponsors and fundraising events and prompted them to lay off an office manager and trim other costs.

"It's a challenge," Beddor said. "But this is the kind of town that picks itself up by the bootstraps."

Spokane landed the 2010 skating championships by shining in 2007, drawing nearly 155,000 fans, topping the previous record by some 30,000 tickets.

"Our athletes had an unbelievable atmosphere to compete in there," said Bob Dunlop, senior director of events for the U.S. Figure Skating Association, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Dunlop said the skaters themselves were some of the biggest advocates for returning to Spokane so soon.

In a major city — the likes of Boston, Los Angeles and Dallas — the skating championships are often just one of many events going on, and sometimes even the cabdrivers haven't known about it.

But Spokane rolled out the red carpet. Crowds that filled Spokane's 10,500-seat Veterans Memorial Arena in 2007 were boisterous and enthusiastic, creating an atmosphere Dunlop says would provide "an excellent launching pad" for Olympic hopefuls.

Not everyone in Spokane was thrilled with the 2007 championships. Some restaurants and shopkeepers grumbled that they didn't get the anticipated business boost from the visitors, and many locals avoided downtown, fearing congestion that didn't materialize.

But a change in the format of this year's championships — with major events happening over two successive weekends, rather than one — may give visitors more time to prowl Spokane's shops and restaurants.

The Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau is encouraging restaurants to consider ways to target skating fans, such as offering some menu items that could be ready quickly for people hurrying back to the Arena. Or by staying open late, to catch customers after the ice goes quiet.

To heighten local residents' sense of connection to the championships, free "Fan Fest" activities are planned at the downtown shopping mall, River Park Square. Winning skaters will greet the public the day after each key event on a stage outside the mall.

The private, nonprofit Downtown Spokane Partnership is assisting in several ways, including putting up banners and twinkling lights downtown, and encouraging businesses to decorate in skate-related themes or patriotic red, white and blue.

Dunlop, the figure-skating association official, said a successful championship relies on "all components of a community," but he credits Beddor and Steward with being "the catalyst, the glue that holds this together."

Thinking big

Beddor, 49, managed radio stations in Spokane in the mid-1980s, then moved to Colorado Springs, where she met Seward, 48, a former national weightlifting champion. The couple moved to Spokane in 1990 and created their sports-promotion company.

"Our thing has always been, 'What's the biggest event Spokane could put on?' " Steward said.

Early on, he decided that the city and figure skating could be a perfect fit, and the national championships in figure skating would be a prize worth pursuing.

The first major figure-skating event they tackled in Spokane was Skate America 2002, an exhibition. Its success, setting attendance records, helped set the stage for Spokane's selection as host of the 2007 U.S. championships.

After 2007, Star USA and Spokane set their sights high, bidding to host this year's World Figure Skating Championships, a competition they lost to Los Angeles.

"It was devastating," Beddor said. "It was very disappointing. But you just dust yourself off and you get back out there and fight."

In retrospect, Steward said he believes the 2010 national championships is a better fit for Spokane, where American fans would most enjoy cheering American skaters.

Heather Sigmon, 19, a Spokane Community College student who hits the ice at 5:45 a.m. five days a week to practice her skating before classes, says she never expects to compete at a high level. But she embodies both Spokane's enthusiasm for the sport and — in a quite literal way — a flag-waving patriotism.

In the opening ceremonies for the 2007 championships, Sigmon was among a group of local skaters who performed a choreographed routine and, during the singing of the "Star Spangled Banner," held an edge of a large American flag, raising and lowering it in sync so it waved gracefully above the ice.

"That was the closest I'll probably ever get to Olympic skating," she said. "I've never felt so high in my life."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

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