Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Raising the roof — Dome group wants to create service area to generate funds for indoor sports facility

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

The Tuttles, of Nikiski, are a soccer family. Dan coaches the Under-14 Sweetfeet in the Kenai Peninsula Soccer Club, and Denise is assistant manager. Four kids play year-round, with two participating in a league that requires frequent trips to Anchorage. The oldest daughter participates in the Olympic Development Program, which involves camps held throughout Alaska during the winter as part of the team selection process.

The kids work hard and love the game, but that alone isn’t enough to bridge the widening gap between peninsula soccer teams and teams from Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna area and Juneau.

Tuttle says that gap is the length of a full soccer field, has a roof overhead, lights and heat, and is blanketed in artificial turf. It’s a place to play year-round.

She and about 30 other central peninsula residents attended an informational meeting Thursday at the Kenai Merit Inn to voice their support for the peninsula’s own 175,000-square-foot dome.

“The rate at which the clubs we compete with are developing, we will be falling behind rapidly without a facility of our own,” Tuttle said. “The difference between an elementary school gym and turf is like apples and oranges, you cannot compare the two.”

Anchorage, Wasilla and Juneau have indoor turf fields where sports like soccer, track and field, baseball and softball can not only start practices on time — instead of waiting for snow, ice and mud to recede in the spring — but they can keep up their skills in the winter, too.

On the central peninsula, outdoor spring sports teams with schools practice in gyms, hallways or wherever else they can find space until their fields are dry and ready for them. Youth programs, like the Kenai Peninsula Soccer Club and Boys and Girls Club soccer program, only get a few months playtime outside when Alaska conditions allow it. After that, it’s either pack it up until next year, or jockey for indoor gym space, which isn’t ideal even when teams can find it.

“Redoubt Elementary has been the most willing to give us time but as our girls have grown, so have their kicks,” Tuttle said of the Sweetfeet team. “It is too small for the 16 girls we roster, making it very difficult to truly practice as needed to compete.”

The solution Tuttle would like to see is an indoor sports facility on the central peninsula, like the 174,290-square-foot, air-supported facility at Changepoint Church in Anchorage, called The Dome.

“Since the (Anchorage) dome has opened, the level of play between our area and those with indoor facilities has grown an even larger gap. It would be nice to give our local talent an arena to shine in and grow as athletes,” Tuttle said.

A local group has been meeting throughout the fall and winter to discuss the possibility and look at ways to make it feasible. At Thursday’s meeting, spokesperson Mike Navarre said the group would like to sell 25-year bonds to finance the project and create a service area with the same boundaries as the Central Peninsula Hospital service area to pay for the dome through tax dollars.

The envisioned dome would be about the same size as the one in Anchorage, only configured differently so it could have designated spectator seating. They also want removable turf to allow for basketball and other nonfield events. The estimated construction cost is $20 million.

Navarre said the group estimates a half mill increase in property taxes would cover the amount needed to build the facility and provide money to help pay to run it. A half-mill tax increase, which would cost the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 an extra $50 a year, would generate $2 million a year. Most of that — $1.4 million — would cover the debt service each year, with $600,000 left to help cover annual operational costs. Navarre said they expect operational costs to exceed $600,000, but plan to make up the difference with user fees. They’d set rates based on how much extra they’d need to raise to run the facility.

While the group does want to follow in Anchorage’s footsteps in building a sports dome, it doesn’t want to end up in financial trouble a year after opening — as Anchorage’s dome is facing a $600,000 shortfall in operational funds.

It would be a mistake for the peninsula to expect to build a facility through legislative money, grants and donations alone, and to pay to run it primarily through user fees, Navarre said. Anchorage’s dome costs $600 an hour to rent for an event, he said.

“For a facility like this, our idea is that a service area is really the only way this area can support it. Local sports teams, they’re constantly out raising money just to have enough money to have the activity. What we want to do is charge for the use of the facility, but make the fees reasonable enough that people can use it,” he said.

The group does hope to get grants, donations and legislative funds to finance a large chunk of the project, and the more financial support they get, the less bonds will be needed. But Navarre said the group wants to be open with the public about all the costs involved, in case grants and donations don’t come in as hoped.

“We don’t want to mislead the public. We’re introducing realistic costs and talking about all the reasons why it’s a good idea. At the end of the day, they get to make the choice,” Navarre said.

The group has been gathering letters of support from a diverse group of potential users, everyone from local sports programs to Homer teams and even Triumvirate Theatre, which would like to do “outdoor” shows there in the winter.

“Think outside the box. It’s kind of exciting to think about all the things that can be done,” said Kathy Gensel, co-chair of the dome facility committee.

Youth and high school sports uses alone would be myriad. Such a facility can include soccer fields, a football field, batting cages, a baseball and/or softball diamond, a track and a basketball court. It could allow the peninsula to host major sports tournaments and teams to practice year-round. Adult recreational sports could also find a home there.

But the public has to buy into the benefits of a dome to agree to more taxes to pay for it. Navarre sees it as an extension of the community’s existing support for kids.

“Those in the business community know that (sports teams) are out soliciting all the time — all the time,” Navarre said. “… It comes out of the community one way or another, and by having a service area we can spread the cost for what we see as a cost of living issue over a broad base.”

To form a service area, the group needs approval from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly to put the question on the ballot. They hope to complete a feasibility study this winter, with money from the hospital community fund and a previous fundraiser, and approach the assembly in May to get the issue on the October ballot. If it passes, construction could start during the 2010 building season, Navarre said.

There are likely to be some sticking points in garnering public support. One is the concern that the dome, with a $20 million price tag, isn’t a necessity at a time when the economy is stumbling.

But Navarre said he thinks this is a good time to pursue the project.

“Alaska has lots of opportunity still for growth and expansion,’ he said. “The Kenai Peninsula community is going to grow, and this is a 25-year project — it’s going to be here for a long time.”

Navarre said he expects the economic woes of the Lower 48 will impact Alaska to some degree, but not as extensively as is happening elsewhere. And he said he sees the possibility of further oil development and natural gas line construction on the horizon, as well as continued demand for an indoor facility.

“We’re talking about a 25-year project, and the economy’s going to go up and down over time, and global warming isn’t going to happen quite soon enough,” Navarre said. “It’s still going to be cold in the winter, so for 25 years, this makes sense.”

Where to put the facility may also become an issue. The group is hoping the borough will donate land — five acres for the facility and another five for parking — somewhere between Kenai and Soldotna.

“Kenai wants it in Kenai, Soldotna wants it in Soldotna. If we find a neutral ground, the politics of the situation are that we’re likely to get more support. There’s only going to be one facility, we’re really going to have to share,” he said.

So far, Navarre and Gensel said they’ve gotten wide-ranging support from government, schools and community organization representatives. The real test will be on the ballot.

“We’re pretty broad in terms of the numbers of people that we have talked to at this stage,” Navarre said. “We’ve got a good broad base of support. It has to go before the assembly and the assembly has to approve it to put it on the ballot and it has to pass. The public gets to decide this. That’s how this works.”

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