Sunday, July 3, 2011

Plan B

The Mayor has selected and the City Council has approved the Arena site for a new Events Center.

The decision was made by a tie vote of the City Council with the Mayor casting the tie breaking vote. The division of the Council is not surprising in that Citizens are equally divided as to whether to build a new Center and where to build it, either at the Arena site, Downtown, or even as some suggest at a venue on the outskirts of the City.

At the probable point of the highest approval (the Argus Leader poll prior to the 2010 City election) 57% supported a new Events Center. The 57% presumably included approval without details as to specifics to locations, costs, or means of finance. Consequently it is no surprise the Community is divided.

There were interesting divisions in the location debate. Those that outright oppose an Events Center were generally silent, hoping I suspect respective proponents and opponents of the two primary locations would divide and the opponents of any center would conquer.

The Arena proponents and there is some support for the Arena site were generally quiet and rarely heard on the Internet or at Public testimony. (I qualify this comment somewhat in that the City sponsored forums were Question and Answer sessions without the ability for follow up questions, i.e. questions were submitted and responses were given. When attempts were made to follow up, the questioners were reminded by moderators these were not debates.)

There seemed to be no organized group supporting the Arena (and I emphasize I do talk to citizens who like the Arena site), the Build It Down Town group was organized. They have over 2000 “friends” on Facebook (Straight Talk included) and the testimony before the City Council on behalf of Downtown was extensive. I thought particularly Casey Murschel, Kevin Nyberg, and David Billion among others were impressive. I am also impressed that a large group of support for DT comes from young professionals, thirty and twenty somethings.

There is another group of supporters worth a mention. Those event directors and convention types that want more to sell. This includes but are not limited too, officially the Chamber of Commerce, the Sports Authority and the Management Companies of the Arena, and Convention Center. These groups just want more inventory to sell. NOW is their issue not so much where.

This past week the Mayor and his Finance Director have come forward with a cost estimate of $110 Million and the method of finance (essentially sell bonds for the total project costs with repayment from future tax collections from the 2nd penny of the sales tax). It’s summertime and going forward there will be much hot air expended on the costs and finance question. Quite possibly the rhetoric surrounding the cost and finance question may be more divided and heated than the location question.

Bottom line – Construction of an Events Center issue will not pass if put up to a special election this November. While location, costs, and finance are salient issues, it has far more to do with public confidence in the Economy and Community leadership, but mostly confidence in the Economy.

For the past number of years I have supported building a new Civic Center. I believed the Arena is too small, outdated, have worse than awful acoustics and in some cases terrible site lines. Our City is worthy and deserves better. While I have never traveled to Sioux City or Fargo for concerts, I think that Sioux Falls is worthy. I supported and still do a dedicated sales tax to finance such special projects with voter authorization and specific tax rescission when the project is paid for. Unfortunately and I believe for a variety of reasons the Legislature has been shortsighted in not giving local government the power to suggest to the voters such a tax.

Given the expert studies, the debate, and my own research and thought these past several months I currently no longer support an Events Center for Sioux Falls.

I previously posted that Sioux Falls should build a 21st Events Center Down Town. I continue to believe if built it should be Down Town and near the River and the Greenway improvements where nearly $100 million in government money has already been committed. I also believe a Down Town Center would be transformative to Sioux Falls.

The economic studies were narrowly focused to economic benefit with mixed results. The primary argument that surfaced was there could be more conventions if only we had more flat floor space (at one location).

I checked several times, the Quest Center (Omaha), Tyson Center (Sioux City), and Fargodome (Fargo) to see what activities were taking place. It was startling to me how few public activities (concerts in particular but also sporting events) were taking place. The Quest Center does have a large number of conventions but from the website I was not able to reliably determine how often the Events Center was used by the convention. Having Creighton Basketball is also a big plus. Thus I question why for maybe an additional 24 nights (over the current Arena occupancy) a year Sioux Falls needs to build an expensive EC. (Note: The experts did conclude the floor space would be used an additional 34 days – see my discussion below on putting a new enlarged convention center Down Town).

My sense (not verified by fact) tells me that for $110 mil it will just be a big hay barn and will not be too nice. As I in-artfully suggested in my prior post an EC at the Arena would reinforce a Sioux Falls’ 1950 meat packing image not the reality of Sioux Falls in 2020, a diversified economy, including financial services, medical services, medical research, manufacturing, meat packing, service industries, and education.

One man’s opinion on how to proceed – After the proposal’s defeat, to move forward two things should happen (immediately). First the campaign should be analyzed and the election results studied to understand where public opinion is and the cause for the results. Second, there should be a cooling off period without acrimony and give the public time to digest what has happened and time to have some political healing. There will be other important issues to deal with, given that next year State finances exacerbated by the flooding and continued pressure of Medicaid, education funding, public employee salary and wage freezes, and the federal deficit.

I don’t know if the cooling off period should be 6 months or 3 years or more, probably something in between but given that Sioux Falls continues to grow at a 1½ to 2% growth rate. with improvement and of the economy, public confidence of the economy restored, and the railroad removal East Bank will be accomplished - I would suggest the following be considered.

Build a new Convention Center Down Town (preferably East Bank with provisions for ample parking) leaving enough room for a Civic (Events) Center to be added at a later date as the City grows into it both in population and higher average per capita income resulting from the better jobs that are coming to Sioux Falls.

In order to accomplish this, after the new Convention Center was occupied I would convert the Arena site campus into the Sioux Falls Sportatorium. Renovate the Convention Center into an indoor Olympic size swimming pool, and convert the remaining space for additional ice activities and indoor tennis.

Thus the Sportatorium campus would include: The Arena, Howard Wood Field, Matt Staab Stadium, swimming, ice hockey, tennis, gymnastics, wrestling, volleyball, and other flat floor activities. Any of these indoor activities presents multiple opportunities for winter tournaments at a time when hotel occupancy is particularly low (especially on weekends.). Additional athletic facilities are also very near by: softball diamonds (McCart Field), hardball near Russell and Kiwanis, and 12th and Kiwanis, Elmwood Golf Course basically across Russell Street and not too far away are the soon to be Junior football fields at Westport and Benson Road.

Plan B is thus the Phoenix not of defeat but opportunity.

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