Sports complex leading Southridge development

KENNEWICK -- A cluster of ball fields off Highway 395 south of Kennewick represents more than diamonds in what has been a rough and tawny landscape.

To the city council, they are fields of dreams built to attract not only thousands of visitors to sports events, but also to be a catalyst for growth.

If all goes as scheduled, the Southridge Sports and Events Complex will be open and ready for action by summer's end.

In the baseball movie Field of Dreams, an Iowa farmer turns a corn field into a ball field, where ghosts of baseball greats will come to play.

Kennewick's dream would see the sports complex become a catalyst for development in the Southridge area.

With three ball fields, a playground and community buildings in place, plus a 30,000-square-foot indoor pavilion, gazebo and splash pool under construction, city officials are eager to see if the complex will help fulfill their dream for developing thousands of acres south of the city.

"That is the idea," said Jeff Kossow, Kennewick's director of economic development. He knows developers have been waiting, looking and inquiring about opportunities in Southridge, and that the time is near for them to get into the game.

"I've had an enormous amount of conversation in the last 90 days with eight groups who've come to us saying they want to be part of Southridge," Kossow said.

The queries include developers from Seattle and California, he noted, adding that they represent commercial retail, restaurants and lodging businesses.

The sports complex adds weight to South-ridge, which attracts attention, but equally important, said Kossow, is that Kennewick has built a reputation as a vibrant community.

"We have shown that we have slow, steady growth," Kossow said.

The Southridge area is Kennewick's only door for continued expansion, said Mayor Steve Young.

That's why the city council decided two years ago to apply for a state grant with the Local Revitalization Fund program, which is providing $12.5 million to build roads and other infrastructure.

In turn, each new construction project at Southridge generates new sales and property taxes to support the state's grant program.

Just like in the movie, Kennewick's willingness to front the infrastructure is supposed to ensure growth and development will come.

"I think there are a couple of big initiatives coming for Southridge, including Kennewick General Hospital's new hospital that will expand the north end of Southridge," Young said.

But the hospital project is in a holding pattern, and that, combined with banks' reluctance to loan money, has had a dampening effect on development.

"We have one hotel and a couple of restaurants waiting for money. A lot of businesses have waited to see how this (economy) turns out," Young said.

"The big question is the hospital," Kossow said.

The city had hoped the hospital and sports complex projects would lead the way for Southridge development.

With the hospital stalled, the city has made the sports complex its top priority for the past two years.

City officials plan to provide an update about Southridge and the sports complex at Tuesday's council meeting, with a 6:30 p.m. tour at Southridge.

The sports pavilion, originally designed as a fabric-covered, year-round facility, now is being constructed as a steel building. It will be larger and have a longer life, all at no extra cost, said Peter Beaudry, city director of municipal services.

The contractor was pouring the foundation this week, with completion expected in mid-October.

Meanwhile, two other opportunities are being pursued.

One is a state grant for about $2.3 million to help the city move quickly on phase 2 of the Steptoe Street extension south toward a connection with Hildebrand Boulevard in Southridge.

Beaudry said the state Transportation Improvement Board has accumulated money it wants to spend sooner rather than later, fearing the Legislature might be tempted to tap the money to help cover the state deficit next year. Kennewick's Steptoe project qualifies as "shovel ready" and is well positioned to receive the grant, Beaudry said.

The other opportunity is a city council decision to assume a developer's responsibility to pay for extending Hildebrand Boulevard with two lanes west from Southridge Boulevard to South Sherman Street. The developer would dedicate enough land for the road to add two other lanes once private financing is easier to obtain.

Both projects will accelerate road work to provide a major new pathway on Hildebrand and Steptoe connecting Highway 395 and Interstate 82 and linking Kennewick and Richland.

Kossow said the new road will make a tremendous difference.

"Hildebrand is key for Southridge, especially in connecting Kennewick back to Richland. People will have a way to get there that they haven't had before," he said.

Kossow also noted that two developers already have staked out sites for commercial and residential projects along the future route of Hildebrand.

Milo Bauder obtained a rezone for mixed-use development so he can start building homes near Thompson Hill, which is in the middle of the Southridge area, and developer Matt Smith of Bend, Ore., is building his Sagecrest residential project on the southwest side of Southridge, off Ridgeline Drive.

"It's like painting by the numbers. All the bits and pieces are starting to come together more," Young said. "I think 2012 is the year you will see explosion of growth out there."