Pressure is rising for South Sound leaders to line up behind a proposed 5,000-seat professional soccer arena in Central Tacoma. And hopes are rising that it will be the catalyst for something bigger: a mixed-use urban village with the power to transform a neglected corner of the city.
The excitement ratcheted up several notches at a news conference Wednesday, staged for maximum hype on the third floor of Cheney Stadium, with a bird’s-eye view of where the companion sports facility would stand.
The vision is compelling and the list of people who’ve caught it is impressive. It brings to mind another collaboration of tenacious local leaders: the 120-bed Wellfound Behavioral Health Hospital, which opens in March just a half mile east.
But Tacoma should resist getting swept away by the stadium hoopla and wait for completion of a feasibility study in the next month or so.
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The study will help launch a conversation about whether this area can afford a major investment in the volatile pro-sports industry — and begin to clarify who would pay for it.
It’s a conversation that must be conducted with transparency, community involvement and a painstaking review of several factors, such as traffic impacts and transit access.
Using public resources to subsidize private sports entrepreneurship is controversial. The city is only eight years removed from a $30 million remodel of Cheney Stadium to keep the Tacoma Rainiers in town.
Reasonable people may differ on whether a stadium venture with the baseball team and its soccer partners is appropriate when weighed against other community needs, such as mental health care and affordable housing.
Wednesday’s extravaganza featured a who’s who of Puget Sound sports club owners, politicians and other movers and shakers. Their message: Soccer’s momentum in Tacoma is virtually unstoppable.
Applause erupted with news that Seattle Reign FC, a women’s pro soccer team, will play their 2019 home schedule at Cheney Stadium — minus Seattle in their name. The Reign will share facilities with the Seattle Sounders reserve team, known as S2, which started playing all home games at Cheney last season, along with the Rainiers.
More applause broke out with news that S2 was doubling down on its host city and rebranding itself the Tacoma Defiance. Eye-popping team logos were revealed.
One more burst of applause came with news that Tacoma-based MultiCare Health System plans to build a 60,000-square-foot clinic connected to the new stadium, serving the athletes as well as the surrounding community.
Conspicuously missing from all the fanfare, however, was the most important piece of the puzzle: the stadium feasibility study, which is being overseen by Metro Parks Tacoma. Without it, the other announcements felt like a tease.
On the other hand, one could conclude after Wednesday’s lovefest that the stadium project has become such a juggernaut, it doesn’t really matter what the study says.
Some of the most effusive comments were offered by Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier.
“Women have not always gotten the most investment in sports, but here in Tacoma, we’re going to get it right,” Woodards said, promising that Reign FC would enjoy first-class facilities.
“I can see the soccer stadium coming,” Dammeier said, imagining the future while gesturing out Cheney’s third-floor window. “I can see the sports clinic out there right now.”
Once such enthusiasm is uncorked, good luck putting it back in the bottle.
In interviews afterward, Woodards and Dammeier said they didn’t know how much money the city and county will be asked to commit, but both said the involvement of multiple private partners would make it manageable.
That the South Sound’s top two elected officials have caught the vision underscores how infectious it is. The Rainiers promise to give back to Tacoma by opening the soccer stadium to youth teams at no cost and by building fields in underserved neighborhoods. The athletes will give back through acts of goodwill, such as visiting patients at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital.
As the visionaries see it, a cluster of restaurants, businesses, housing units and other amenities would blossom between the baseball and soccer stadiums on a footprint of land operated by Metro Parks, adjacent to Foss High School.
Perhaps nobody dreams bigger than Rainiers chairman and CEO Mikal Thomsen, who grew up in Pierce County. He reflected fondly on his youth 50 years ago, before state Route 16 and the Nalley Valley Viaduct were built — before Central Tacoma was carved up and lost its cohesiveness.
The Cheney Stadium area was reduced to a “hidden gem,” Thomsen said, but it need not be hidden any longer.
There’s much to admire about what Thomsen and his partners aim to accomplish.
But we have equal admiration for any civic leader who follows these principles:
Be patient. Resist the pressure to treat a dazzling vision as a fait accompli. And carefully assess the feasibility of a professional sports complex before pledging public resources to it.