As the Tri-Cities is poised to vote next month whether to pay for a regional aquatics center, those in charge of the TRAC facility in Pasco are looking at ways to secure the future for the venue that's never turned a profit since opening 18 years ago.
The proposed aquatics facility will be built west of TRAC off Road 100 instead of on TRAC's property near Road 68, one of the early site proposals for the regional facility.
Franklin County Commission Chairman Rick Miller said the key to the TRAC's future will be finding ways to keep it from needing county subsidies.
"The only way to make it sustainable is to expand it and bring in private business," he said.
The Trade, Recreation and Agricultural Center, or TRAC, has lost money since opening in 1995. It lost $236,671 last year, down from $397,015 in 2011.
TRAC's general manager said $400,000 losses have been typical, but such facilities are supposed to lose money.
"It's not intended to make money and it likely won't," Troy Woody said. "Nor will a senior center or coliseum or Dust Devils stadium. All these things are built with government money because private sector people know it's not good math when the cities and counties are the ones who benefit from all the spin-off money."
With the aquatics center no longer in the future at TRAC, some are looking at ideas to keep the Franklin County-owned facility viable, such as installing concrete floors.
Woody takes pride in TRAC, which features two 40,000-square-foot halls. One is designed for conventions, the other is an arena with a dirt floor that can be covered with a portable floor.
The arena has bleacher seating for 3,000 for events like monster truck rallies and motocross events, with another 2,500 seats that can go on the floor for concerts.
"I've had a quilt show on that side and arena motocross on that side going at the same time the same weekend," Woody said.
Including lobby space and meeting rooms, TRAC is 150,000 square feet, Woody said. It has 12 full-time employees, along with a number of part-time on-call workers.
But he acknowledges the building could use some upgrades.
Woody would like to see $5 million to $7 million in renovations at TRAC, including adding locker rooms and replacing the dirt floor in one of its halls with concrete.
"That would really open it up for different types of events," he said. "It's more than a few years away, given our current fiscal situation."
County Commissioner Bob Koch agreed. He said building a concrete floor and buying equipment to haul dirt in and out for livestock events would allow the facility to bring in more events while keeping the ones it has now.
"It would just make it more versatile," he said. "You could have different set-ups."
Miller would like to take the redesign a step further and give the facility a western theme. That could include offering horseback riding for a small fee outside the building in a fenced in area that's now a parking lot.
And having an arena with a concrete floor would allow for more people to fit inside for country music concerts with crowds bigger than 7,000 people, Miller said.
"If it holds more people, you can get bigger bands," he said. "Right now, they don't come because it's too small a capacity."
Miller's hope is that the western theme would attract businesses like a privately-owned western store to the area, which could keep visitors coming even when there aren't TRAC events.
"It might be 10, 20 years, it may never happen, but I'd like to see TRAC grow," he said.
TRAC's track record
TRAC supporters say the facility brings money into town, an estimated $9 million in annual economic impact. Kris Watkins, CEO of the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau, said the building reports 250,000 people coming through the doors in 2012, with 30 percent of them coming from out of town.
Watkins said visitors mean business for hotels, restaurants and stores.
"You name it and they don't just come to town for one specific thing," she said. "They are doing many different things."
But some critics say the government shouldn't be footing the bill for something that loses money, even if it brings revenue into the community.
"It doesn't mean we have to pay it," said John Talbot, a former Spokane mayor who now lives in Pasco. "Sell it or auction it off to the highest bidder. Private enterprise has the incentive to make it work."
Pasco City Manager Gary Crutchfield said the city has two agreements involving TRAC -- one that obligates the city to pay its 20-year debt through 2014and the other requiring the city to share its operating costswith Franklin Countyfor 30 years. The city was responsible for more than $219,000 last year.
"The city is not free and clear of that facility until 2024," he said.
County Commissioner Brad Peck said he had several ideas for TRAC. He would have liked to have seen an aquatic center, or other large family recreation facility, built on land the county owns to the south and west of TRAC, preferably using a private developer.
"My position really with TRAC was that we had a lot of available land at the TRAC site that could have been used to develop an aquatic center or water park," Peck said. "It didn't necessitate tearing down what was there, although it often was interpreted that way."
The 27.6 acres that includes TRAC is assessed at about $3.6 million by the county assessor's office, according to county records.
Peck also raised the possibility of selling the building to a private developer as a meeting facility and having the county use the money to build a new horse arena as part of a Franklin County fairgrounds on the outskirts of Pasco.
"I said that largely for the purpose of creating discussion and broadening thinking so we'd have the benefit of more than one or two ideas," Peck said.
With the Road 68 area the fastest growing part of the county, Miller said the county would have been foolish to let the water park go there.
"The prices we were talking about, we were giving it away," he said. "We own a valuable piece of property and it was voted by the people for TRAC to be there."
Crutchfield called the city a "silent partner" on TRAC, required to write a check for half of what it loses, with its only input getting to appoint three members of a seven-member advisory board for the facility. The board includes city council members Rebecca Francik and Al Yenney, but the city hasn't appointed its third member since Leonard Dietrich resigned in 2009.
The county commission also appoints three members. The six members then vote on a seventh member, who is required to be a Franklin County resident. The county appointees are Brenda Alford, Dave Beach and Dick Moore, with board members naming Ray Sadesky as the seventh member.
But the board can only make recommendations to the county commission, which has final say on TRAC.
"They're pretty receptive," Yenney said of the commissioners. "I think with TRAC, maybe we need to be very proactive in helping support it."
Miller said the county makes money off the recreational vehicle park it owns adjacent to TRAC and that revenue goes toward covering losses at the facility.
Woody said the facility has continued to increase the revenue it brings in from events, with $2.37 million coming from facility rentalsin 2012, the most since the facility opened in 1995. That was up from $2.29 million in 2011 and the fourth consecutive year of a revenue increase. As recently as 2007, the facility had $1.61 million in revenue.
"I fully expect 2013 to be just as good as 2012," Woody said. "We have been on a steady upward trend of revenue for the last seven years, and I'm not seeing any change."
With more money coming in, Woody expects the losses to decrease.
"The revenues continue to climb," he said. "When you reach a certain point, your costs don't rise equally."
TRAC is booked with events 57 percent of the time, Woody said.
In 2012, TRAC had 208 event days, a day an event is held, and 301 use days.Woody said an event day is any day an event is held in the facility, meaning that if three events were held on a day, it would count as one event day.
A use day is how many times the facility is actually used. So if a circus has two shows on the same day, it would count as two use days.
The Regional Home and Garden Show is the largest annual event at TRAC, Woody said, drawing around 12,000 people.
A west Pasco catalyst
Koch praises the job Woody is doing with TRAC, but said it could take time before the county can afford major improvements like the concrete floor.
"Each year, the subsidy is going down," Koch said. "But our whole economy needs to turn around to be able to afford that. It just depends on what the economy is doing, as well as what we get from the state."
Peck doesn't see the county having the money to make a large capital investment in TRAC anytime soon.
"Theoretically, we could go out and borrow additional money through the bond process, but, ultimately, the taxpayers have to pay that burden," he said. "I'm not at all inclined to add to the already heavy load on our citizens."
Woody said TRAC can do a better job of letting people know its value to the community. While some say it competes with the Toyota Center convention hall and arena across the Columbia River in Kennewick, he feels the facilities complement each other.
"To some degree, they're an apple and an orange," he said. "The Toyota Center is much more specifically an arena and separate convention center. This facility is a little bit of both. There's some things that are much better fits over there and some that are much better fits over here. If we duplicated services, we wouldn't both be seeing record growth over the last five years."
One needs only drive down nearby Road 68, which was an agricultural area before TRAC opened and is now the busiest street in Pasco, to see the effects of TRAC, Watkins said.
"When TRAC opened in 1995, you really began to see development take place," she said. "It really is a catalyst for much of the development along Road 68."
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom