Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A dome to call their own — Committee considers building indoor sports complex

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Summer sports in Alaska mean making the most of what’s available — playing in gyms until grass fields green up, huddling under blankets at spring and fall games, and scheduling doubleheaders to cram a standard-length season into the brief two to three months the weather allows for play.

That could change on the central Kenai Peninsula, as an exploratory committee looks into building a domed sports facility in the Kenai-Soldotna area.

“We live in Alaska, and global warming is just not coming fast enough,” said Mike Navarre, who is involved with the committee. “A dome allows for training year-round. We’d be able to compete with Anchorage and other places that have domes.”

The committee is in the preliminary stages of investigating the possibility of such a facility.

“Initially we’re just trying to get some idea of what it would cost to build a dome, see what sort of strategy and plan we’d need for accomplishing it,” Navarre said. “It’s mostly information gathering, gauging what kind of support we would have and what kind of users we would have.”
Navarre envisions a dome being useful to soccer, track, baseball, softball and football teams — basically, any summer sport that finds its season hampered by unsummerlike weather.

Soccer and track would especially benefit, since their seasons start in the spring, usually before their outdoor facilities are ready.

“This year they couldn’t get on the tracks this spring, and almost all the high school tracks need to be upgraded and repaired right now anyway,” Navarre said.

The Boys and Girls Club soccer program, Kenai Peninsula Soccer Club, Pop Warner football and high school sports programs could potentially use such a facility.

“Based on early investigation I think there’s a lot of interest there,” he said. “I think it would definitely be well-used on a long-term basis, especially on the central peninsula.”
Mike Tilly, president of the Kenai Peninsula Soccer Club, said he can see the appeal of a dome suitable for summer sports.

“Anytime you’re trying to expand an athlete’s capabilities and if your particular sport is in an outdoor environment, and in Alaska the environment isn’t always conducive, then obviously an indoor dome or facility would be pretty beneficial to you,” he said.

Without one, KPSC teams often start the year practicing on a gym floor, where they can’t hone ball-handling skills meant for grass.

“It’s like being a hockey player and there’s no ice, or being a swimmer and there’s no pool,” Tilly said.

It’s one thing if it’s a level, ungrassy playing field where everyone deals with the same challenges, but Kenai Peninsula athletes often find themselves competing with Anchorage and Wasilla teams that have access to indoor sports facilities.

“One of the benefits of some of those clubs is they have more time to practice prior to their fields coming into condition,” Tilly said. “… It makes obvious sense that if there’s a place for these kids to get in there and train and practice there would be some obvious benefits to that. That would be a no-brainer.”

Making the dome a reality, however, takes quite a bit of brain-work.

The committee is considering building about a 176,000-square-foot, fully air-supported dome that could accommodate indoor turf fields and track facilities, similar to the size of The Dome in Anchorage. The price tag could be between $8 million and $12 million, Navarre said.

The cities of Kenai and Soldotna both have locations that could potentially host a dome that size, but the committee would need to consider water and sewer availability, parking space, the extent of groundwork required and other factors — including the political feather-ruffling that might come with choosing one city over the other.

A first step toward a dome is finding grant funding to do a feasibility study on the project. The committee would hope to learn how much a dome would cost, where to locate it, how much use it would get, what it would cost to operate and maintain it, and where all that money would come from.

Navarre said grant money through a fundraising campaign may be available for construction costs, but there needs to be a plan for paying for the dome after that, whether it’s user fees, setting up a service area to access taxpayer money or some other system.

“In the past we’ve seen a lot of things put together without long-term plans for operating it,” he said. “The operating costs is always where things sort of fall apart. How can you pay to operate and maintain it long term?”

It’s an important question. The 8-year-old Kenai Multipurpose Facility, for example, operates at a roughly $50,000 loss each year, according to city attorney and acting manager Cary Graves. But the city considers it a public service, he said.

Tilly said he could see operation and maintenance costs as being a sticking point for the project.

On one hand, central peninsula residents without kids in sports programs may be reluctant to shell out tax money for a facility from which they don’t directly benefit.

“They could say, ‘Well, I don’t want to support that.’ The other side of the coin is it comes down to a quality of life thing in the community,” he said.

Making the facility available to as many sports as possible may be a way to win community support, Tilly said.

Navarre is hoping the committee can gauge support for the project through a series of open meetings. The next will be held at 10 a.m. Sept. 10 in a conference room at the Borough Building in Soldotna.

“We want to take the time to do it right and build up the public support that we can afford to operate it,” he said.

“We ask people to keep an open mind.”

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