Among all the claims made about big-city stadiums and sports arenas, here are two that can be certified as factual: They involve a bunch of money, and they generate fights that are long, bruising and largely unresolvable to everyone’s satisfaction.
Who pays to build those venues and who reaps the benefits, if there are any to be had, are mere starting points in contentious debates over the value of professional sports franchises as civic amenities, their economic-development contribution (if any) and the subsidization of multibillion-dollar leagues by a public that can’t afford to attend events held in those increasingly pricey buildings that sit idle much of the year.
Few cities better illustrate just how prolonged and bitter those fights can be than Seattle, where enough ill will remains from previous rounds involving Safeco and CenturyLink fields, as well as over a Sonics arena that was never built, to be poured into the current brawl over dueling arena proposals.
Tacoma has stayed out of those frays over new sports venues, although it feels the occasional effect such as hosting the Sonics for a season in the Tacoma Dome. If the teams it has hosted over the years — AAA-level baseball, several non-major-league hockey franchises — lack the glamour and glitz of their big-city counterparts, they also lack the big-city ticket prices and the expensive facilities in which to play.
But how about another modestly sized and priced sports venue in Tacoma? Would that interest — or repel — anyone?
Those will be the intriguing questions in play as the community takes a look at a proposal unveiled in the last week by the Seattle Sounders and the Tacoma Rainiers for a 5,000-seat soccer stadium adjacent to Cheney Stadium. The stadium’s primary tenant would be a team now known as S2, a developmental-league-level team owned and operated by the Sounders and now based at the Starfire soccer complex in Tukwila.
There are multiple business and economic aspects to the proposal, starting with the involvement of the Rainiers. The Rainiers appear to be developing a second business line beyond operating a minor-league baseball team. For the past two years, the organization has handled certain business functions for the Tacoma Stars, an indoor soccer franchise (and a revival of the name and logo of the late 1980s team that played at the T-Dome) that has played at the ShoWare Center in Kent.
In the proposed arrangement, the Rainiers would handle business operations for S2 (which would get a new name), while the Sounders would continue to oversee the soccer side.
They’re not the only participants. Since three public entities — the city, Metro Parks and Tacoma schools — own land parcels and facilities in the vicinity, they’ll be involved in discussions over siting the stadium and the financial arrangements.
And that’s where things will get particularly interesting. A lot of details remain to be worked out, including the cost and who pays what.
The city has some experience with this already. It owns Cheney Stadium, under a 30-year lease to the Rainiers, and the dome. Kim Bedier, Tacoma’s director of venues and events, says the city receives $3.2 million a year in lease payments, admission taxes, facility fees, B&O taxes and cell tower revenues. The money goes toward debt service, the city’s contribution of $50,000 a year to a capital repair and replacement fund and other expenses, including insurance. The Rainiers handle operational expenses.
With no anchor tenant, the dome is managed directly by the city. In the most recent fiscal year, dome revenues were $8.3 million vs. $8.4 million in expenses. The later number includes $583,000 in depreciation and debt payments on a rigging grid to be paid off in 2018.
The public’s appetite for participation in another venue beyond offering a ground lease will come down to analyzing not just how much it’s being asked to contribute — a topic that Kent has been wrangling with ever since ShoWare opened and began accumulating losses — but what the perceived benefit to the community is, either directly (visitors spending money) or indirectly (parks and libraries are not revenue generators, but people like having them).
Backers of the proposal may be able to bolster their case if they can demonstrate what else the facility could be used for beyond S2 — college and high school soccer, tournaments, concerts, other sports.
Just one more factor playing into the broader issue of municipally owned or funded sports venues — the Seattle mayor’s race. With incumbent mayor Ed Murray dropping a re-election bid, the Sodo-vs.-KeyArena battle, which weighs on the economic health of the T-Dome, is thoroughly muddied. Meanwhile, Bedier says the city is drawing up schedules for a $21.3 million T-Dome renovation project, with much of it to be done in the summer of 2018.
If the soccer stadium proposal can be structured to minimize the public bite while enhancing the community’s portfolio of facilities and events, it’s far more likely to get approved and built than whatever Seattle comes up with in the way of a basketball/hockey/concert building. Let Tacoma have the fun; let Seattle have the fighting.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.