Dirt and ice could be two endangered species at TRAC as Franklin County contemplates major changes for the longtime Pasco venue.
A year after it opted not to pave the arena’s dirt floor, Franklin County commissioners are rethinking that decision after two major customers said they don’t like a temporary flooring.
Separately, the commission is taking a hard look at the business case for keeping its ice rink at TRAC.
Wednesday, commissioners took an unflinching look at TRAC during a rare field trip.
The commission spent nearly three hours with Tom French, TRAC’s general manager. It made no decisions, but made it clear it is ready to consider paving over the dirt floor to keep two event promoters from renting elsewhere.
“We’re at a crossroads,” said Keith Johnson, county administrator.
Franklin County owns TRAC and manages it under a cost-sharing agreement with the city of Pasco.
While all agree it is a valuable asset to the community that has done an admirable job of catalyzing private investment in western Pasco, the center is showing its age. And it faces more competition from other venues.
The city and county split a $480,000 operating loss in 2015, continuing a long tradition of relying on taxpayers to subsidize losses.
The center, under pressure to reduce the subsidy, turned a corner in 2016. French said the city and county each received a $96,000 “credit” last year.
$480,000 2015 loss
$192,000 2016 profit
$170,000 2017 temporary floor
But economic pressures are mounting as two key customers say they’re growing weary of holding events on a temporary floor laid over the dirt arena, even after the county replaced the original flexible flooring this year.
The upshot: After learning that the new flooring hasn’t assuaged critics, the commission is back to looking at a solid floor.
Paving the arena surfaced last spring, when the Home Builders of Tri-Cities said the original temporary floor had failed to the point of being a tripping hazard to the thousands who attend its home and garden shows.
HBA is a key partner for TRAC, but the commission rejected its pitch after the agricultural community rallied in support of equestrian and livestock events.
Organizers of barrel racing and bull riding competitions threatened to abandon TRAC rather than risk high-end horses and bulls on a concrete surface overlaid with dirt.
As a compromise, the county spent $170.000 in rural economic development funds for a new temporary floor earlier this year. But it didn’t work.
There’s a couple of high value, short-term things we should look into.
Brad Peck, Franklin County commissioner
The Home Builders Association held its annual home and garden show in February. French said it told TRAC managers it isn’t happy and is considering other venues.
A concert promoter whose Hispanic dances account for 19 percent of TRAC’s annual revenue also is unhappy. California-based VMG Concerts hinted it will consider taking its business to Yakima or elsewhere, French said.
Franklin commissioners said they want to make their current customers happy.
“There’s a couple of high value, short-term things we should look into,” said Commissioner Brad Peck.
Visit Tri-Cities has identified 24 events TRAC could bid on if it had a concrete floor in the arena. Collectively, they would yield $4 million in activity at nearby hotels, restaurants and other businesses if TRAC succeeded in booking them.
“Dirt” events generate little revenue — less than 4 percent of TRAC’s net revenue in 2014 and 2016 — and it costs more than $1,000 every time TRAC has to install or remove the temporary floor.
French said a surprising amount of debris accumulates in the dirt during vehicle events. Monster trucks routinely lose bumpers, parts, spark plugs, fiberglass and actual glass. It all has to be removed before other events use the same dirt.
The county’s public works department has to level the dirt before the temporary floor of interlocking plastic panels can be rolled out.
“The dances have been a huge moneymaker. The horses and (dirt) events, not so much,” said Johnson, the county administrator.
The dances have been a huge moneymaker. The horses and (dirt) events, not so much
Keith Johnson, Franklin County administrator
TRAC can pave the arena and still honor agriculture, the primary driver of the Franklin County economy.
The campus includes a 36,000-square-foot outdoor arena that barrel racers and other visitors use to warm up before competition.
French said it could be expanded to more than 60,000 square feet if some of the little-used barns nearby are removed. The county indicated it’s interested in learning what it would cost to cover that arena for livestock events.
The commissioners also toured the ice rink in the pavilion behind the main building, learning that the aging equipment is difficult to repair and that TRAC barely receives enough rent to operate the rink, much less keep up with capital needs.
TRAC leases the 30,000-square-foot ice rink to the Tri-Cities Amateur Hockey Association for youth programs. TRAC replaced a dehumidifier in the arena at a cost equal to half the hockey association’s annual rent.
Commissioners are considering whether to shut it down when the current contract expires at the end of the 2018 hockey season.
We’ve got to provide the benefit to the people. TRAC is very important to our community.
Rick Miller, Franklin County commissioner
TRAC opened in 1995 — the voter-approved facility that merged a traditional convention center on one side with the dirt-floored arena on the other. Over the years, it added an outdoor arena, as well as the ice rink and an RV park.
Neither the city nor county expected it to be profitable, believing it would spark private development along Road 68 and boost local tax revenue.
But a state audit released in 2014 identified financial issues, so the county hired Tom French in 2015 to improve management and financial controls.
Chairman Bob Koch, who represents Franklin County’s north end, has previously wanted to preserve the arena for livestock events. But he has said the county still has to be a good steward of its asset.
Commissioner Rick Miller said the county’s commitment to TRAC is unwavering.
“We’ve got to provide the benefit to the people,” he said. “TRAC is very important to our community.”