Matt Driscoll

Reign FC and Tacoma Defiance want millions in tax dollars for a stadium. We need to ask if it’s worth it

Professional women’s soccer takes foot in Tacoma

Reign FC players hit the practice field at Foss High School in Tacoma as the National Women's Soccer League regular season prepares to kick off.
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Reign FC players hit the practice field at Foss High School in Tacoma as the National Women's Soccer League regular season prepares to kick off.

It’s feasible, Tacoma.

That was the high-level — and completely expected — takeaway from Tuesday’s City Council study session, focusing on the ongoing effort to build a state-of-the-art soccer stadium for the Tacoma Defiance and Reign FC on the Heidelberg Davis Athletic Complex on South 19th.

The proposal, now with a feasibility study, doesn’t stop there. As it’s laid out, in addition to a 72,000-square-foot, 5,500-seat soccer stadium the plan calls for an adjoining mixed use “village,” potentially full of apartments, offices and retail space. There’s also a multi-field sports complex — to help foster the next generation of Tacoma soccer players — as well as a 60,000-square-foot MultiCare clinic (just for good measure).

Soccer fan or not, it’s intoxicating stuff, especially in a city like Tacoma that’s historically accustomed to settling for much less.

As city councilman Ryan Mello said during Tuesday afternoon’s meeting, “I’m excited we’re dreaming big.”

It’s a sentiment likely shared by many, myself included.

Now, for the real question, however:

How much public money are we willing to fork over to make it happen?

Because these big dreams come with a substantial cost, and as has become customary in the stadium game, the private sector powers championing this grand vision are now preparing for their next move: passing the hat.

As a cohort of consultant-flanked representatives from the Sounders, Defiance and Reign FC explained during a Tuesday afternoon editorial board meeting at The News Tribune, the cost of the stadium alone is roughly $60 million. The price tag for the whole shebang is expected to approach $300 million.

The stadium, they said, is the key to the project, and where public money really comes into play. They’ll need it, we’re told, to make the plan pencil out, specifically from the city of Tacoma and Metro Parks, and perhaps many others.

How much public money will this require?

They wouldn’t say.

How much private money are they willing to bring to the table?

While Aaron Artman, president of the Rainiers and Tacoma Defiance said he anticipates it to be “significant and fair,” adding that he doesn’t believe anyone will “look at the private contribution alone and not think we are definitely doing our part,” the answer was essentially the same.

The feasibility study does include a modeling blueprint for what the funding breakdown might look like — including an upfront contribution from the city of $10 million, and $5 million from Metro Parks. But hard specifics are scant at this point, likely by design, because nothing is committed.

What they would say, for certain, is that they hope to have the parameters of deal hammered out in the next 30 to 60 days. The public contribution — whatever it ends up being — would then need to be vetted by the public and approved by officials from the Metro Parks and the city (some of whom already seem head over heels onboard, it’s worth noting).

Truthfully, getting that done in 30 or even 60 days sounds hopelessly optimistic to me, but what do I know?

Actually, I do know one thing: The public has every right to ask for more than a topnotch soccer stadium out of this deal if it’s going to pump millions of dollars into making it happen. That much is certain.

It’s a remarkable concept, and a tantalizing vision, but Tacoma has far more pressing problems than making sure professional sports team owners can build a place for their teams to do business.

That’s just the reality, whatever the feasibility study says. So while we’re busy reinventing what soccer in Tacoma might look like in the future, we should also take the opportunity to reinvent what the typical stadium deal looks like for the public. Because without some sincere creativity, Tacoma residents will likely (and rightfully) be hard pressed to make building a new stadium a top priority.

Of course, providing benefits to the public — above and beyond the stadium — is the idea. You don’t reach this point in the process — after celebratory press conferences and the commissioning a 258-page study — without getting the messaging right. The “public benefit” is baked into the plan, we’re assured.

As part of the deal, the public will get 100 days of access to the new stadium, via Metro Parks, meaning Tacoma kids can play on the same field as Reign FC and the Tacoma Defiance. That’s fantastic.

We’ll also get at least eight additional soccer fields in a city that needs more of them, with an emphasis on reaching under-served communities. Good deal.

If all goes as planned, the mixed-use village will include affordable housing, which we desperately need.

We’ll get tax revenue and jobs. We’ll get civic pride. Heck, they’ve already started handing out free soccer balls to kids (no joke), and who knows what other public perks might be cooked up between now and then.

Again, all of this is great. You can’t argue with the aspiration, or how fun it is to daydream about. The feasibility study — as feasibility studies typically do — makes it sound like a no-brainer, and perhaps it is, especially when you consider the potential long-term payoff.

But the looming question for Tacoma residents remains straightforward:

How much is all this worth to you, in dollars and cents? And is the public benefit enough to justify spending it?

Because after months of hype and fevered anticipation, that’s what this is about to come down to — and fast.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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