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Dome fixes must come quickly if Tacoma is going to compete with Seattle arena for shows

Tacoma Dome looking east from Pacific Tower. Interstate 5 traffic leaves streaks in this time exposure with the Port of Tacoma in the background. Photo made Thursday, October 27, 2005.
Tacoma Dome looking east from Pacific Tower. Interstate 5 traffic leaves streaks in this time exposure with the Port of Tacoma in the background. Photo made Thursday, October 27, 2005. News Tribune file photo

People have known for years that the Tacoma Dome needed spiffing up. People have known for years that Seattle would eventually get a new sports arena that would compete with Tacoma for concerts, shows, conventions and some traveling sporting events.

What they haven’t known is how or when or where that Seattle arena would be built, and how much of a window of opportunity Tacoma would have to get its plan and funding together.

Now we do know, and it’s not what had been expected, at least on the Seattle end of things. Here’s why what has transpired might work to Tacoma’s advantage.

The working assumption was that the new Seattle arena would be Chris Hansen’s project in Sodo, just south of the existing baseball and football stadiums, and that its primary role would be as a home to an NBA basketball team.

Through a combination of the weirdness of Seattle politics and the adroit maneuvering of a rival group, the “new” arena is actually an existing facility gutted and gussied up — KeyArena, in Lower Queen Anne. That project was proposed as a combination concert venue/sports arena, but things are moving remarkably rapidly and unexpectedly on the sports front.

The first sports tenant will not be a replacement for the Sonics, much to the befuddlement of fans who thought this whole issue started because of hoops. Instead it’s more likely to be hockey, in the form of an NHL franchise.

That’s not the outcome most people would have expected when locations for the new Seattle sports arena and home for Sonics 2.0 were, at various times, Sodo, Tukwila, Bellevue or even Renton (remember that one?). And there’s a danger in presuming that chapter of the saga has been finished. Not a single shovel of dirt has been turned. Seattle process and Seattle politics still hold considerable power and potential to bollix what seems at this moment inevitable.

That’s all stuff Tacoma can’t control. It’s also not a player in the realm of hosting a major-league sports franchise, so that’s not been an impediment to doing something. Instead its issue has been deciding what improvements to make and how to pay for them.

The culmination of those deliberations is a $30 million project, to be completed over the summer, with improvements to seating, restrooms, the sound system, air conditioning and lighting. Construction and remodeling will shut the dome out of the concert and event business for the summer, but some of those events make a detour to outdoor venues (White River, the Gorge at George), so it’s not an awful time to do the work.

It’s an even better time to have the work done and over with, given that the KeyArena project hasn’t even started.

Concurrent with the dome project, the city has been looking at what it might do with the nearby neighborhood, which has a few landmark attractions (Freighthouse Square and the LeMay car museum). The city is asking for development proposals for a 10.6-acre parcel it owns. What it’s hoping for is an entertainment district that would give people more reasons to go to the dome district and linger (and spend money) there.

That’s the trend in stadium and arena development these days. It’s not just the building itself that matters, it’s the surroundings that catch the eye of event promoters and attendees. A sea of parking lots is practical but not terribly appealing.

But let’s focus on the matter of practicality, because that’s going to play a huge role in the competition between and success of the Tacoma and Seattle arenas.

Backers of the Sodo arena have criticized the KeyArena project for traffic and transit accessibility, and they have a point.

Getting to and from an event at Seattle Center, especially if multiple events occurred simultaneously, wasn’t easy when the Sonics were there in 2008, and the neighborhood has changed dramatically since then. Many surface parking lots are gone. Traffic snarls between there and I-5 are worse with the rise of Amazon. Light rail doesn’t go there. Who knows if the viaduct-replacing tunnel will make things better or worse — and they still have to take the viaduct down, another contributor to already horrendous traffic.

Not that Tacoma has had much to brag about in that department.

The massive and lengthy I-5 project, complete with lane shifts and restrictions, makes an already tough choke point worse. But that project will get done someday — it will, won’t it? — and the proximity of the transit center a few blocks away could help, especially if buses and light rail can ferry people to remote parking. The challenge for Tacoma: Get its arena redone ahead of Seattle and complete transportation projects to get things back to as close to normal as is possible.

Artists’ drawings of arena projects never show the traffic gridlock on a cold rainy Northwest night when a semi jackknifes somewhere on I-5 in the middle of rush hour, but that’s the reality of life here, and the sort of routine event that influences people’s decisions about going out to a game or concert. Cram a building with all the high-tech upscale bells, whistles and amenities you can afford, book the biggest names and events you want, but those efforts will be for naught if no one can get to the venue to enjoy them.

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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