Mayor halts pre-design work on $40M arena


by Sarah Squires

Mayor Jerry Miller announced this week that he’ll ask the city to halt predesign work on a potential $40 million arena to house the arts and WSU basketball.

Miller chalked up the request to the economy, adding that he felt both the state and local investors “had no appetite” for the proposal now.

This is the second time that committees set up to study the proposal with a $250,000 state grant have been stopped just before hiring an architect. The concept was initially studied by a committee under the grant’s original terms — for a theater to house the Great River Shakespeare Festival and other arts events. But after almost a year of work, Miller announced in December 2007 that he’d been meeting with private businessmen for six months who wanted to see the scope of the project change to include WSU basketball and sporting events.

The first committee disbanded just as it was about to hire an architect. Now, the current committee studying the newer, broader plans will likely do the same, as plans are halted just as negotiations with the architectural firm HOK Venue have been underway.

Miller will meet with the committee to discuss his plans on Monday, and will bring the idea to the full council on January 5 when it will come to a full vote.

City staff are currently working on finding out whether the $250,000 state grant has a time limit to be spent and whether stopping the plans now will mean the money will have to go back to the capitol.

Miller said that the information that the predesign would compile, which would include a market study and feasibility study, won’t stay current for long, so it would be pointless to move ahead with plans knowing that the funding probably won’t be there for some time. “It doesn’t make sense to spend money just to spend money,” he said. “It’s my view right now not to do anything until we find out, in six months or so when the state figures out how they’re going to solve the shortfall, how that’s going to affect us.”

Miller said that his idea was to reevaluate the study when the economic picture is more clear. Initial funding thoughts on the project indicated that the city would try to get state funding for half of the facility costs, then fundraise and bond for the rest.

As for private donors for the arena, Miller said he “didn’t think that [money] is there now either.

“Without even talking to anybody, all you have to do is see what happened to the stock market, to 401k’s and retirement plans,” he continued. “People are very cautious now as to what they’re going to do until they have some idea in how this is going to play out.”

Special Projects Director Chad Ubl, who’s been overseeing the committee on the work, has been trying to get word from the state on whether the grant money can wait, or, whether it will have to go back into state coffers. But he didn’t seem too optimistic Tuesday. “The assumption is that we give the money back,” he said.

Ubl said that all city departments are looking at basic services right now in light of the economic times, and that the uncertain times don’t lend much to pursuing a huge development. “Should we be looking at building a $40 million events center when we’ve got other economic concerns that are on the forefront of the community?” he asked.

Committee member and Great River Shakespeare Festival General Manager Jeff Stevenson said he’d barely gotten wind of the proposal to shut down predesign work for the facility. But it mirrored efforts to hunker down that are happening all over, including within the festival company’s own plans for the near future. “Like so many things in these uncertain times, it’s sort of wait and see,” he said, calling this a time to really use resources wisely and pay attention to options.


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