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Americans’ owner lobbies for Vista Field coliseum

When Bob Tory looks at Kennewick’s Vista Field, he sees a new home for the Tri-City Americans.

It’s not hard to see why the longtime Americans co-owner and general manager wants to move out of the 27-year-old Toyota Center.

The team jokingly refers to the rainwater leaks in the stairwells as the building’s water features. And most of the damaged ceiling tiles have been removed and not replaced on the lower levels.

Visiting hockey teams call their locker room Alcatraz.

Kennewick owns the aging arena. And although city officials say it is among the city’s priorities, there are no immediate plans or timeline for a major remodel or replacement. Either option would be costly.

Both the Americans, as the anchor tenant, and the city have made repairs and investments in the 5,700-seat facility. The city’s efforts to update restrooms and some concession booths and add a second elevator have helped.

And the team has fixed up space used by the hockey players, including the Americans’ locker room, weight room and study area.

City Manager Marie Mosley said they try to prioritize the coliseum’s projects based on what’s best for customers and what will extend the life of the building. But a substantial number of repairs and suggested upgrades remain.

Some, like replacing broken and uncomfortable seats, could boost customer comfort, while others, like the leaky roof and electrical, plumbing and air conditioning systems, would better overall building operation.

Mosley said it’s definitely time to look at options for replacing or fixing it. That’s something the city is doing, even though there isn’t money for it.

The city and the Americans are looking toward the future as they negotiate a new lease to replace one set to expire June 1.

Tory brought a private developer to meet with Kennewick officials last year who was prepared to build a new, 8,000-seat facility, but a deal never came together.

And he’s briefly talked with Pasco officials about building a Pasco coliseum instead.

Tory said he’d rather stay at Vista Field, but he’s concerned about proposals to attach a new expansion to a coliseum in desperate need of capital improvements.

A new town center

Tory believes a new coliseum could kick start redevelopment of Vista Field, the former airport closed by the Port of Kennewick.

The 113 acres sit next to the Kennewick entertainment district that includes the coliseum and convention center. Plans are to turn the former airfield into a mixed complex of restaurants, offices, shops and places to live and play.

And while a performing arts center also is being considered at Vista Field, Tory contends the port needs several anchor tenants for the redevelopment project. A coliseum and a stand-alone, first-phase performing arts center could work well together, he said.

“They need a shovel in the ground to attract developers and investors,” Tory said.

Ideally, the coliseum could help bring in up to 8,000 people into the new entertainment district on 200 nights a year, Tory said. Event traffic could help attract commercial and residential development.

It’s an idea Tory has chatted about with Port Executive Director Tim Arntzen. But it’s not one that port commissioners have gotten a chance to consider yet, and it isn’t something city officials say they have discussed either.

Tory said his heart is not set on a particular location at Vista Field. He points to several places on the former runway that would work well for a coliseum, including near one of the proposed locations for a performing arts center.

The current draft for Vista Field shows a performing arts center where the former fixed-base operator building is now. That would put it across Grandridge Boulevard from the convention center and the new SpringHill Suites by Marriott.

And Tory contends a new coliseum doesn’t have to take up more space. It could be the same size and still have 2,300 more seats, for a total of 8,000, he said.

Other features could include club seating, luxury suites, restaurants and added concession options and updated technology such as new video boards that would allow fans to see replays.

Having a new facility would improve attendance at hockey games and attract more traveling shows, Tory said. The Tri-Cities gets passed over because Toyota Center doesn’t have the capacity or technical capabilities, such as catwalks, needed for certain shows.

Sharing the coliseum with other users including the Tri-Cities Fever Indoor Football League team, Broadway shows, concerts and other events also ultimately helps everyone, he said.

The Toyota Center and convention center are critical economic drivers in the Tri-City area, said Corey Pearson, executive director of the Three Rivers Campus. Activity in those buildings helps bring people into restaurants and hotels and results in many jobs, he said.

Having the Americans call the Tri-Cities home also is an economic boost, Tory said.

The hockey team brings in competing teams, National Hockey League scouts and visiting fans and families who spend money. That impact is estimated at well more than $10 million a year, he said.

Keeping it going

The coliseum was built in 1987 by Ronald Dixon, a Canadian who brought the Tri-City Americans to Kennewick.

Seven years later, Ron Toigo bought the Americans from Dixon and joined with the city to buy the coliseum.

Kennewick then bought the building from Toigo in 2000 and over the years made some significant investments in repairs.

Pearson said they’ve got to do what they realistically can to keep the building viable for as long as possible.

Tory said he’s concerned that there doesn’t seem to be much support for a new coliseum.

“My vision is for a new building, but I understand that that’s a difficult process,” he said.

Pearson argues a planned expansion of the neighboring Three Rivers Convention Center would address some of Toyota Center’s limitations, including the narrow concourse that becomes crowded during events and has limited room for concessions.

“When we get busy, we plug everything up,” Pearson said.

Connecting the Toyota Center to new concessions space in an expanded convention center would help address that bottleneck while adding to food and beverage options, he said.

But that doesn’t address other problems.

The Toyota Center doesn’t meet the Western Hockey League’s quality standards, Tory said. And the quality of the ice is poor, even though VenuWorks, the company hired to manage the coliseum and convention center, does the best it can.

Pearson said they want to be up to standards and are working to address some of the issues. But they also have to prioritize the limited capital improvement dollars.

The city sets aside $200,000 a year from its capital budget for Toyota Center repairs, said Dan Legard, city finance manager. But the city also has made improvements above that.

The city also has budgeted $350,000 a year in recent years to cover Toyota Center’s operational losses. But Legard said the actual impact to the city’s general fund is much less.

Each year, $150,000 from lodging taxes pays part of the bill, since events at the coliseum draw in visitors who pay hotel taxes and the money has to be used for tourism promotion.

The city also receives an admission tax from the tickets sold for events at the coliseum. That can be about $175,000 to $200,000 a year.

It doesn’t always offset the full cost to the city, but there have been years where it has, Legard said.

Options open

Despite not having money for a new coliseum, the city says it’s in long-term plans.

The Kennewick Public Facilities District, which manages the Toyota Center for Kennewick, plans for a new coliseum on Kennewick Irrigation District-owned land next to the Toyota Center. There is no planned construction date.

At the moment, the facilities district’s priority is expanding the convention center. But voters already have once rejected a new sales tax to pay for it.

And the city simply doesn’t have the debt capacity necessary to build a new coliseum, Legard said.

The city already is obligated to pay for a new fire station and past projects, like the investments the city made in the Southridge area off Highway 395.

Tory said he doesn’t think Kennewick should have to foot the entire bill. It’s possible to achieve that goal through a private developer or some form of a public-private partnership.

Mosley said city officials are always looking for public-private partnerships and have spent some time discussing options, but the city does not have the money to pay for a substantial portion of the cost of a new coliseum.

The Americans’ 10-year lease of the Toyota Center ends June 1. Tory said he and former Americans players Olie Kolzig and Stu Barnes and local businessman Dennis Loman have no plans to move their team outside of the Tri-Cities.

“We bought it to keep it here in the Tri-Cities and we have lived up to everything that we said we would when we bought the team,” Tory said.

Attendance has risen from about 2,800 a game to more than 4,000 a game during the past decade, Tory said.

“We took this business from bankruptcy to being a very well-respected franchise in the Western Hockey League,” he said.

Before 2005, the Americans had been passed among five ownership groups.

“They saved it,” Pearson said. “This franchise was on its way out the door. Olie, Stu and Bob and Dennis saved it.”

Tory said they are making slow progress with lease negotiations. Pearson said there are some challenges, including trying to anticipate what might happen in the surrounding area.

Tory hopes to be able to work with civic and community leaders to make a new coliseum a reality instead of just a vision.

“The question is, who is going to pay for it and how are you going to do it?” Tory said.

If Tory had his druthers, the Tri-Cities would have a new coliseum in two years. Construction could take about 18 months. But having one in five years would be wonderful.

Too much longer though, and the cost will significantly increase, he said.

“What seems expensive today is cheap tomorrow,” he said.