Bond-funded sports complex touted as visitor draw for Washington city

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Boosters in Spokane, Washington, say bonds will help the city become the Pacific Northwest destination for youth sports tournaments as they move forward with plans for an arena in the heart of downtown.

Spokane County has agreed to issue $25 million in limited tax general obligation bonds to fund part of the $42 million project, which would be built and managed by the Spokane Public Facilities District.

The proposed Spokane Regional SportsPlex would be an indoor track field venue that could also be converted to volleyball and basketball courts or an ice hockey rink. Its bleachers would seat 3,000 spectators.

Project backers say they expect to attract 18,000 to 23,000 visitors a year, pumping between $19 million to $33 million to the local economy.

“It’s kind of a game-changer for our region is what we’re saying to people locally,” said Eric Sawyer, president and CEO of the Spokane Sports Commission. “This will be something that will be unique.”

The non-profit economic development agency was formed in 1989 to attract sporting events to the region.

Last year, the eastern Washington city of 212,052 hosted 68 sporting events over 185 days in 2017, bringing 46,000 athletes and family members and generating $53 million to the local economy, according to the commission.

Those events include National Collegiate Athletic Association events as well as those held by schools, community leagues and other youth sporting organizations.

“Spokane has become known for attracting a high level of what we call sports tourism,” said Larry Soehren, vice chairman of the public facilities district.

The city has two outdoor stadiums – one that is home to a minor league baseball team and another with soccer and softball fields.

The idea for the arena was brought forward five years ago when the commission began meeting with local sports groups about what the region was lacking in sports amenities and what they could do to attract more events, Sawyer said.

“From that it became very clear a large multi-purpose indoor sports complex was needed,” he said.

The multi-purpose design allows for versatility in which the arena can be converted to fit 17 volleyball courts, 10 basketball courts, 21 wrestling mats or a National Hockey League-regulation size ice sheet, according to the district.

As an indoor facility, the arena would be able keep busy from October through March and be especially competitive during the winter months, Sawyer said.

Project backers estimate there are 200 additional events the arena could attract that Spokane can't get now with its existing facilities.

The centerpiece of the 180,000 square-foot arena would be a 200-meter, six-lane running track which will be hydraulically banked -- meaning it can be adjusted to offer a flat or sloped course as needed.

Hydraulically banked fields are still rare in the competition world and Spokane’s would be the first on the West Coast, Sawyer said.

Track and field organizations have already begun making inquiries, he said.

“All have basically said, ‘When can we book it?'" he said. “They’re desperate to look for an indoor track facility.”

County commissioners approved the plan to issue bonds in April but are waiting until a deal for the project site is final before issuing them, Loehren said.

The design process would take place this summer with construction beginning in early 2019 and the arena opening in 2021, according to the district.

Under the deal, the public facilities district would repay the county with sales and hotel taxes and district reserves. The district has issued bonds for past projects but chose to go through the county to take advantage of better bond and interest rates, Loehren said.

Spokane County has an Aa1 credit rating from Moody’s Investors Service while the Spokane Public Facilities District has an A1 rating.

It’s a strategy the district used before to fund an expansion of the Spokane Convention Center – one of the facilities run by the district. The county also issued bonds for that project which the district is repaying as a loan, Loehren said.

In addition to the district and the county, the state of Washington and city of Spokane – which is contributing the land for the arena – will help pay for the project.

Bond-funded sports complexes can be a risk, as some cities have discovered.

In 2013, the Minneapolis suburb of Vadnais Heights defaulted on $27 million in bonds for a sports complex and had its credit rating downgraded to junk status.

Wenatchee, Washington, was also downgraded to junk status after defaulting on nearly $42 million in debt for a regional sports arena. That deal triggered a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation that led to a settlement in which the issuer, underwriter and a banker for the underwriter paid fines.

Ralson, Nebraska, had to increase local property taxes in 2015 after revenues to pay off a $29 million 2011 bond issue for a sports arena did not materialize as forecast. The city-owned facility continues to operate in the red, according to the city.

Spokane officials say they’re not worried.

“I think we have a unique enough project to stand out and we have a unique community to support that,” Loehren he said. “There’s a high level of confidence given our past success.”

As part of the process, a feasibility study was prepared in 2015. That study estimated the arena could generate $23.9 million in annual economic activity.

“The greatest benefit will come back to the hotel industry from the folks coming into town and staying in hotels,” Loehren said.

The study also expects that the arena will make a healthy profit in food and concession sales.

As a model, the study pointed to a Birmingham, Alabama, project called the Birmingham Crossplex, built for $46 million in 2011, that has exceeded its revenue forecasts.

Spokane officials also point to their current success in drawing regional sports tournaments, many now held at the Spokane Convention Center. The new SportsPlex could take on those events, freeing up the convention center for more trade shows, Sawyer said.

When not booked for tournaments, the arena would be made available to local sporting groups.

The location of the SportsPlex is also expected to be a draw.

The arena will be on the Spokane River’s north bank in a downtown park that was recently expanded. The site is close to hotels, restaurants, shopping and transit, making it easier for travelers and encouraging them to see other parts of Spokane, Sawyer said.

“That enhances the experience for the athletes and their families,” he said.

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