Flooring is the 'unsung hero' of The Podium's success that other cities are hoping to replicate

Mar. 11—When Dan Rucker celebrated with his seventh girls basketball team after winning the state championship on Sunday, he was unaware he was standing on one of the most advanced flooring technologies in the country.

"When you walk in there as a kid, it's pretty awe -inspiring — it's a big deal," Rucker said of his team from Arlington, Washington. "You would think this place was built for a tournament like this. You would have no idea there's an indoor track under you."

Just a week prior, the Podium hosted the largest high school track event on the West Coast, according to Paul Christensen, sports director for the Spokane Public Facilities District.

"It's not exactly proprietary but no one else is working with a floor like this," Christensen said.

The Public Facilities District owns and operates multiple venues in Spokane and years ago began working on plans for a new type of operation.

"Most of the people who will use the Podium aren't locals because it wasn't built for them," he said. "The whole point of building it was for one thing: sports tourism."

In addition to some of the largest track events in the region, including the championship meets for multiple collegiate conferences, the Podium has hosted national championships in handball, women's wrestling, judo, badminton and others.

And next month, its versatility will be proven by hosting a concert. Some 4,000 people will be in attendance for Dethklok, a death metal band.

"We knew we wanted an indoor track because hotel vacancies were higher during those months," he said. "Then we began asking other venues how we would hold concerts on top of it."

One worker at the University of Michigan found the idea somewhat laughable, Christensen said.

"They said, 'You wouldn't,'" he said.

The success of the Podium is far surpassing what the Public Facilities District anticipated.

When it hosted its first event in 2021, the organization predicted the Podium would operate at an annual loss of $200,000 to $500,000, Christensen said.

They anticipated this to persist for its first five years. In 2023, it was just $50,000 shy of breaking even.

But its success is not easily achieved.

It costs around $35,000 to transform the facility from a world class indoor track to a space fit for the most competitive middle school basketball.

Over five days, inmates from Geiger Corrections Center, workers struggling with addiction from Reclaim Project Recovery and members of the stagehand union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, work to convert the venue.

"It takes a lot of hands to make this a reality," Christensen said. "I asked these organizations to give me as many workers as they can."

After lowering the banked curves of the track and removing pole vaulting pits, throwing cages and other equipment, tarps 100-feet-long cover the 75,000-square-feet of precious turf.

"It's a World Athletics Certified track that allows us to hold premiere meets," he said. "We have to protect it at all costs."

A flooring material worth $1.2 million is placed on top of the tarp.

This is the surface on which concerts are held. It not only helps protect the track from spills, but it also provides the strength that is needed so the hydraulic system used to raise and lower the curves of the track is unharmed.

"The panels are a really robust composite material that interlocks," Christensen said. "With the heavy machinery you need for concert build-outs, you have to have a really strong surface."

Christensen knows of no other venue that has hosted a concert on a World Athletics -certified track.

For volleyball, basketball and other sports played on a court surface, two more layers are added to ensure there are no "dead spots" where a ball bounces poorly. Layers include a rubbery material beneath the final plastic tiling.

The combination of track surface, subflooring and court tiles is completely unheard of to each flooring manufacturer, Christensen said. In 2021, their creation was tested by the company who manufactures the court tiles.

"Basically, this "sandwich" system outperforms how our product is typically utilized and installed," said Jeremiah Shapiro, vice president of operations at SnapLock Industries, Inc.

Andy Siverly and the State Basketball Championships put on middle school tournaments all over the country. Siverly said the Washington competition is their marquee event.

"I never saw myself connecting with an event like I do with this one," he said. "The venue is special. The city is special."

Neither this year, nor last year, did he receive a formal negative complaint about the floor, he said.

The floor at the Podium is much better than where the tournament was previously held, at the Spokane Convention Center, according to Rucker who coached his older children at the venue.

"It was kind of soft. It had dead spots. And it was loud, like a ball was slapping against plastic or something," he said. "But the floor at the Podium is true, and the environment there is amazing."

He did have one critique though. He said the floor made the atmosphere electric — literally.

"There must be something with that floor but there's a lot of static," he quipped. "People kind of walk around with little afros."

Christensen said the last piece of the puzzle is figuring out how to tame the static electricity in generates.

"I've asked everyone for answers and they don't have any," he said. "The subfloor is known to have that effect on smaller spaces but we're covering 75,000-square-feet with it."

He is looking into remedies but in the meantime, there are no real dangers of the issue, save for a few minor jolts during the end-of-game handshake.

All considered, the flooring is the "unsung hero" of the Podium's success, he said. And it's catching the attention of other venue operators.

Officials at the Portland Expo Center are undergoing research to see how they can redesign their venue to generate more economic activity. Executive Director Matthew Rotchford looked to the Podium for answers.

"We wanted to know what made the Podium successful," he said. "They figured out how to make a floor that can hold a lot of different events."

Nearing retirement from a career in the industry, Rotchford said in his world, versatility is "king."

"That's the goal, to generate economic impact every weekend," he said. "The risks Paul and his team took to make that happen seem to have really paid off."

"They have a model that is enviable for other cities."