Time is on Tacoma Dome’s side, for now, as a regional venue choice

July 7, 2013 

For months we’ve been conjecturing about the line of dominos that would fall once the Chris Hansen group opened its new Sodo arena, complete with NBA franchise.

Would the new arena flatten competing venues of similar size, specifically the Tacoma Dome and KeyArena? Would it deliver glancing blows to the region’s two pocket arenas – ShoWare in Kent and Comcast in Everett – or something more consequential?

Momentum for the Hansen arena seemed so strong, its construction seemed so inevitable, that not much time and energy in speculation was devoted to this scenario: What happens if the Sacramento deal falls through, there’s no team headed to Seattle and, consequently, no arena?

Which, as it turns out, is exactly what happened. Despite a deal supposedly in place for acquiring the team and moving it to Seattle, despite failed previous efforts for a new arena in Sacramento, despite the financial straits for the city and the state of California, despite a much smaller corporate base, despite contentious relations between the city and fans on one side and the existing ownership group on the other – despite all of that, Sacramento managed to get its act together (can’t use the expression “at the 11th hour” because it was well beyond that), cobbled together an ownership group and an arena plan and kept the Kings from transforming into the Sonics version 2.0.

That would seem to put an end to prospects for a new Seattle arena – for the moment, anyway. While there has been talk of landing an NHL team as the first tenant instead, that scenario is complicated by the lack of an ownership group committed to it the way the Hansen group was to an NBA team, and, beyond that the suspicion that Seattle lacks a fan base of a size, enthusiasm or heritage sufficient to support an NHL franchise.

(Yes, we know about Seattle’s Stanley Cup and that there are hockey fans here. But that Stanley Cup was in 1917. Not too many of those fans are still around to clamor for an NHL team. And while your columnist counts himself as a hockey fan, the crowds at various Thunderbird, Silvertip and even Sabercat games he has attended would not suggest an insatiable demand for major-league hockey.)

But the idea of a Sodo arena is shelved, not dead. The Hansen group still has its money and its land. Even more importantly, it still has the desire for a team.

Eventually, it will get one, either by expansion or acquisition of an existing franchise. David Stern, who seemed to delight in toying with and tormenting Seattle, will be gone as NBA commissioner, and the lure of someone willing to pay all those lovely franchise fees will be too tempting to snub.

Kim Bedier, Tacoma’s public assembly facilities director (and the former manager of Comcast Arena), likes the speculation about yet-to-be-secured teams going to a yet-to-be-built arena in Seattle. Tying up potential dates at KeyArena while the new arena is built reduces the dates that venue is available to compete for touring shows.

But she is also realistic that at some point a new Seattle arena is going to get built, and when it is then we can see for ourselves how the line of dominos fall.

“We have a window of three to four years to prove we can remain competitive,” she says.

When it opens, the Seattle arena will be the shiny new toy. Tacoma will suffer by comparison, a few years added to the 30 it already has on it.

Unless, of course, it uses that three-to-four-year window to address seating, suites and club areas and back-of-the-house amenities whose age and shortcomings will be even more glaring when the new palace opens.

That will run into money, which Tacoma, being a smaller market with a smaller corporate base and a still-wobbly economy, doesn’t have. It’s not as though Tacoma hasn’t heard this before. Even those who like the dome and want to see it upgraded gulp hard at the price associated with an extensive overhaul.

But perhaps it can accomplish much of what it needs in smaller bites by generating more of its own revenue. Thus the proposal for selling naming rights to the dome. Bedier also has plans to hire someone specifically dedicated to “book the heck out of the dome.”

The Tacoma Dome is making some progress on that front already. At the moment the calendar looks a bit sparse, save for some big shows such as Taylor Swift in late August (already sold out). But Bedier says summer is a slow time for indoor venues such as the dome, what with competition from outdoor festivals and amphitheaters. Fall and the first quarter of 2014 are shaping up well with annual events (holiday gift show) and touring acts that haven’t been announced. “We’re happy with where we’re sitting,” she says.

But as someone whose responsibilities also include such facilities as Cheney Stadium and the convention center, Bedier knows too well that for sports, concerts, meetings, shows and other events, the region is already “over-venued,” a situation that will not improve when the Hansen group finally gets its team and its arena.

The Tacoma Dome has been given a gift of time, or perhaps reprieve is the better term, in dealing with the consequences of adding yet another venue to the mix. How it uses that time will go a long way toward determining how it fares when that reprieve runs out.

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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