Politics & Government

Rodeo, hockey favored for funding

Bull riding and junior hockey are trouncing the Seattle SuperSonics and NASCAR in the competition for state tax dollars.

The state House on Wednesday approved tax subsidies for a proposed rodeo arena in Lewis County and an events center in Kent that would host the Seattle Thunderbirds hockey team.

The projects now go to the state Senate, where they appear to have a lot of support.

Bills to provide much larger public financing packages for a Sonics arena and NASCAR racetrack, meanwhile, are languishing.

In fact, lawmakers combined the rodeo and Kent Events Center projects into a single bill with a title that is designed to ensure nobody tries to piggyback the Sonics arena on it.

It is now an "act related to financing regional centers with seating capacities of less than ten thousand." The proposed Sonics arena in Renton would seat 18,000. The NASCAR track near Bremerton would seat 80,000.

Backers of the equestrian center in Lewis County and the Kent arena went to great lengths to separate themselves from the bigger professional sports stadium proposals.

"We are not Sonics, we are not NASCAR, we are local people," said Larry Hewitt, a Centralia businessman who is leading the push for a 7,000-seat domed equestrian center in Lewis County.

Hewitt had originally talked about public financing for two-thirds of an arena expected to cost between $70 million and $80 million. But he said in an interview that the plan now is for mostly private financing.

Unnamed investors

Hewitt said investors - he declined to name them - are interested in the equestrian center project. He said they are keeping a close eye on the bill the House passed Wednesday.

"We hope it will galvanize some of this investment money," he said.

Legislative staff estimates the bill would provide $8 million in state tax dollars for the equestrian center over the 25 years of the bonds.

The money would come by providing the project with a percentage of the state sales tax collected in Lewis County. Local government officials would have to agree, and they're expected to do so.

Rep. Gary Alexander, who represents the area, has also requested $30 million in tax dollars for the arena. That would come from the state construction project.

"The odds of getting that are slim," said Alexander, R-Olympia.

Alexander said he hopes the bill passed Wednesday would be enough. The plan is to build the Southwest Regional Equestrian Center along Interstate 5 at Exit 63 in Winlock.

Backers said the facility would have events such as pro rodeo and bull riding, national equestrian shows, conventions and concerts. They hope to attract hotel and restaurant chains to set up at the site some 60 miles south of Tacoma.

Supporters argue it would help with the local economy damaged by last year's closure of the TransAlta coal mine near Centralia.

The proposed Kent Events Center would help that city's emphasis on rejuvenating its downtown core, said state Rep. Pat Sullivan.

"I want to emphasize this facility is not a facility that can host professional sports," the Covington Democrat said in a speech on the House floor.

The Seattle Thunderbirds, a team in the developmental Western Hockey League, would be the anchor tenant for the arena. The team now plays its home games in KeyArena, the same place the Sonics are trying to ditch.

The plan is for the 6,000-seat events center to also host concerts, graduations and the like. It's expected to cost more than $67 million. Municipal bonds would finance much of it. House Bill 2388

Proposes tax subsidies for a proposed rodeo arena in Lewis County and an events center in Kent that would host the Seattle Thunderbirds hockey team.