Arenas are not always the answer

contributing writerFebruary 26, 2012 

Arenas get a lot of public attention and discussion, usually for the wrong reasons.

Building an arena often becomes a matter of civic pride – “hey, they (fill in name of nearby town) have an arena, we need one too.” This is also known as the convention-center argument, and it works about as well in either instance.

Or it becomes an exercise in wishful thinking by sports fans – “Think of the teams we could land if we had an arena.” In a few cases this has actually worked – think of Kent and Everett with Western Hockey League franchises because of new, pocket-sized arenas they’ve built. In other cases, building an arena doesn’t guarantee a franchise and having one is no guarantee of keeping one – as Tacoma’s recent sad history attests (“So long, Tacoma Stars! Enjoy Kelowna, Tacoma Rockets! We’ll miss you, Tacoma Sabercats!”).

The focus is understandable if misplaced. A new municipal water treatment plant is a far more essential public investment than a new or remodeled arena, but who goes out to cheer the filtration system? Arenas are places where entertaining things happen. They’re in the fun business.

But make no mistake, it’s a business. Arenas are expensive to build and operate – ask the people of Wenatchee about that.

A lot of communities in the Puget Sound region are going to be rudely reminded of the cold financial aspects of the business, thanks to Seattle’s renewed interest in building yet another full-sized sports arena.

Never mind that Seattle has one large-sized professional-league-level venue – KeyArena – now operating vastly under its capacity with the departure of the Sonics to Oklahoma City and the Thunderbirds to Kent. Having been told that arena is no longer good enough, the city is now bewitched by a plan to build an arena south of Safeco Field to accommodate both the NBA and the NHL. Best of all, the story goes, private investment and tax revenues generated from the project will pay for it.

Building a new arena and figuring out what to do with the old one are not purely Seattle problems. For starters, all of you who believe the public won’t be tapped for this somehow, keep away from sharp objects and heavy machinery.

Communities with existing arenas – i.e., Tacoma, Kent and Everett – have something to worry about, too. While the latter two are much smaller than what’s likely to be built in Seattle, there’s still some overlap for certain events and shows (the Harlem Globetrotters, for example).

And if the new Seattle arena houses an NHL team, what becomes of the WHL teams that are the prime tenants in those two smaller venues? Some cities have both NHL and WHL franchises – Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary. But those cities are in Canada where hockey is the national pastime.

Is there enough oxygen in the local hockey ecosphere to sustain three teams? If not, what keeps those arenas afloat?

Kent and Everett may be able to survive through distance from the traffic and parking mayhem of an in-Seattle arena and hosting events of a smaller scale and ticket price than the big-city facility would bother with.

But where does that leave the Tacoma Dome, which has the advantage of being even further removed from Seattle but has the disadvantage of being a size that will put it in competition with a new building in Seattle for the same events?

The best hope for existing arenas is that the latest proposal for a Seattle arena goes the route of the last eleventy-seven (i.e., nowhere).

But if it does get built, the biggest competition will not be inside on the court, the ice or the stage, but outside, trying to find enough events and paying customers to fill seats, calendars and operating budgets.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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