Improbable. Unrealistic. Doubtful. Dubious.
Whichever the word, the prospects of an NBA or NHL team ever calling the Tacoma Dome home are all the same: Highly unlikely, a Chicago-based consultant told members of a Tacoma City Council committee this week.
“We don’t think it’s a very realistic opportunity for a number of reasons,” David Stone of AECOM said Wednesday.
And that professional assessment – an opinion more than six months in the making that mirrors what naysayers up and down Interstate 5 have claimed for years about Tacoma’s pro sports prospects – cost the city $95,000.
But AECOM’s Tacoma Dome feasibility study wasn’t all for naught. The consultants also provided city officials with a comprehensive, 150-page analysis that included key information about what they called “the recommended scenario” for the Dome’s future: A more practical, less-costly option to modernize the arena so it’s more competitively viable for amateur sports, concerts and events other than pro hoops or hockey.
“The vision here would be to sustain and enhance and preserve the asset that you have now,” said Bill Crockett, director of AECOM’s sports venue designs.
Modernizing the Dome still wouldn’t come cheaply. A full-scale renovation would cost an estimated $184 million – about $111 million less than what the price tag would be for completely gutting the arena and upgrading it to NBA or NHL standards.
But the more realistic option could be divvied up into phases over time, with officials for the financially-strapped city picking and choosing enhancements as fiscal reality dictates.
“Would it be great to have a sweeping renovation from top to bottom? Sure,” Kim Bedier, the city’s new facilities director, said Thursday. “But would it be realistic? No. There’s just not the cash to do that right now.”
Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who last year pushed for the feasibility study to determine if Tacoma could be a player in the expected return of the NBA to the region, described the consultant’s work as vital information.
“I do believe it was necessary to dream very big, and then also look at the other options, as well,” Strickland said Wednesday. “And so, now I think we have a very comprehensive view of what’s possible for this beloved facility.”
AECOM experts worked with city facilities staffers and surveyed past, current and potential Dome users, event promoters and local business representatives.
They also studied competing venues, plans for new arenas, market conditions and how various scenarios would affect Tacoma’s economy and Dome operational costs.
The 30-year-old wood and concrete Dome is highly visible and accessible, but AECOM noted other strengths are also some of its biggest weaknesses.
Its 22,000-plus seating capacity makes it the region’s largest indoor venue – a draw for big concert tours. But for smaller events, its size and aging seating systems constitute a weakness competitors can exploit.
The Dome’s lack of parking and poor “back of house” spaces – including aging and cramped concessions areas and concourses – also hurt business.
“The fact is that while we’ve talked about some of the attributes of the facility, it’s also functionally obsolete in just about every respect,” Crockett said.
The consultants found the Dome’s pro sports prospects to be a reach because there are few available teams and a long line of potential suitors.
The “demand for these teams exceeds the supply for these cities,” Stone said.
The American and Canadian cities now waiting for teams generally “are the major city in the market” and already have new arenas built or planned, he added.
With a population of 200,000, Tacoma would be the second smallest city in both the NBA and NHL, meaning any team here would be forced to “rely on regional support, which we don’t really see happening here,” Stone said.
Competing arena plans, that if built would dash Tacoma’s pro sports hopes, are farther along in Seattle and Bellevue.
“It appears likely that one of these facilities will be constructed,” AECOM’s study found.
The city’s former facilities director, Mike Combs, who had pushed for the Dome study and attended the presentation, afterward disputed some of the assumptions.
The Dome can attract a regional crowd, he said, as shown by the attendance of more than 15,000 fans at Seattle Sonics games played there in 1994-95 while Key Arena was under renovation.
AECOM officials said that history was included in their analysis, but didn’t change their opinion.
Nonetheless, the consultants saw the scenario through, determining how much upgrading the Dome to major sports standards would cost.
The estimate: $295 million, with annual debt service amounting to about $15 million for 25 years. After revenue and cost-sharing with a pro-sports tenant and new event-generated tax revenues, the city would still have to find about $3 million per year.
With a pro sports team in town, the number of events at the Dome would double – from about 70 annually now to 140. Attendance also would climb, from about 545,000 per year to about 1.3 million. And Dome events would generate $238 million to Tacoma businesses annually compared with about $42 million now.
But the more likely scenario is forgetting about the pro-sports dream and just enhancing what Tacoma already has: A civic arena that hosts concerts, entertainment and community events.
Renovations for that option come to about $184 million. Of that, consultants said about $103 million fall into priority upgrades, including overhauls of the seating bowl, back of house interiors and the adjoining exhibition hall, plus adding 1,000 new parking spaces.
The number of events under the “civic arena” option would rise to about 95 per year, with annual attendance seeing a slight bump, too. The benefit to local businesses would increase by about $7 million annually, the study said.
AECOM also looked at how the arena’s overhaul could improve Dome District development, identifying sites for potential hotel, commercial, streetscapes, plaza and parking projects.
Under any improvements, Crockett said, the Dome is due for grand new visible entrances on opposite sides. He added a new roof treatment – including potentially making over the Dome with a sunflower design Andy Warhol once proposed for the building – would create a fresh “signature aspect” for the arena.
“This building is such a gateway for your city,” Crockett said. “So many of your visitors that come in pass right by this building. What a great way to announce the arts district and celebrate that and extend that.”
The city likely will prioritize the consultant’s ideas and incorporate them into Tacoma’s long-term economic development strategy for the Dome District, Bedier said.