Tacoma Dome 2.0: Renovations and repairs strive to ‘recapture the magic’ of downtown's historic landmark

Consider for a moment these facts: when the Tacoma Dome opened, “Dallas” topped the television ratings, “Flashdance” was breaking records at the box-office, and the Apple Macintosh computer had yet to reach American homes.

Fast-forward 20 years, and virtually nothing in the building has changed: the narrow, ash-colored concourse; the broken-down ice maker, no longer of use at skating events (event organizers must provide their own); even the trough-style urinals in the men’s restrooms. The dome’s outdated features provide it a certain museum-like quality that doesn’t sit well with its operators and (many people argue) visitors.

“Take the marquee,” for example,” says Beth Sylves, Marketing Manager at the Tacoma Dome. “”That has been there for 20 years. It’s probably running on technology so old, there’s nobody to work on it any longer. If it fails, we may not able to get it back up and running.””

The comment rings like an embarrassing admission, rather than a complaint.

When plans for renovations to the Tacoma Dome were presented to the City Council last January (the City of Tacoma owns the building, yet the Tacoma Dome operates as an enterprise fund; it exists solely on its profits and losses), the message was clear: the dome needs attention.

But what sort of attention?

According to Tacoma Dome representatives, the list is long:

  • Concourse improvements to include wider passages for visitors, more concession points-of-sale, and better restrooms (cost: $20.25 million);
  • Seating upgrades to include improved sight lines, retractable platforms for the lower bowl, new fixed corner seating decks, curtains, and other flexible event equipment (cost: $12.15 million);
  • Mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades (cost: $2.7 million)
  • Site work to include, grading, paving, signage, banners, furnishings, lighting and landscaping (cost: $2.03 million);
  • Back-of-house improvements to include new spaces for commissary, storage, operations, and mechanical equipment, artists’ rooms, backstage areas, expanded administrative and box offices ($1.35 million).

When the presentation was made to the City Council last January, dome representatives met some resistance.

“The first line in The News Tribune the next day was something like, ‘’Britney Spears needs a new shower, and the dome wants to spend $40 million to make her more comfortable,’'” says Sylves. “”That wasn’’t the case.””

To illustrate her point, Sylves pauses during a slide presentation that outlines the dome’s improvement plans. A slide depicts the performers’ area. The shower room can only be described as prison-like: a stainless steel pole is fitted with nozzles . . . a hand-soap dispenser is mounted to the wall . . . a knee-high partition of painted concrete is the only evidence of privacy.

“”Paul McCartney took a shower there,”” she says, cringing. ““That memory is probably going to stay with him. The building’s condition is a competitive disadvantage for us right now.””

To understand the need for renovations to the Tacoma Dome, says Sylves, one must look at the entertainment industry’s economics. The market has changed considerably over the past 20 years.

First, ticket prices have gone up irregardless of the economic climate. The increase in ticket prices results in increased expectations of event-goers. ““If somebody pays $125 for a concert ticket,”” Sylves explains, “”they expect nice amenities, comfortable seating with a nice sight line, and good concession options. We’re a 22-year-old building, so we’re not really meeting those expectations.””

Second, the competition is much different. Case in point: the two biggest concert promoters — Clear Channel and House of Blues — have built their own amphitheaters (White River and the Gorge, respectively). Large-scale summer concerts that would have otherwise gone to the Tacoma Dome are now held at these outdoor amphitheaters.

Third, the concert industry has experienced a decrease in ticket-sales and attendance. The mega-concerts with 20,000 people in attendance are rare these days. According to industry statistics, out of the top 100 concert tours in 2003, only 13 tours averaged ticket sales in excess of 18,000; 50 tours averaged less than 8,000 ticket sales. The statistics indicate a trend toward smaller concerts.

That said, leaving the the Tacoma Dome untouched as a large-arena venue that lacks the contemporary amenities and abilities to adapt to the entertainment industry’s tastes threatens the facility.

Sylves argues that Tacoma residents can already see this impact. In 2002, concerts generated 38 percent of the dome’s revenue. That number dropped to 30 percent in 2003. Similarly, the net loss in revenue for 2003 was $200,000. Sylves predicts the net loss for 2004 will be “in the neighborhood” of $200,000 to $400,000. “”We are really starting to project that we are going to stay at a deficit because of the competitive forces and the changes in the industry,”” says Sylves.

So why weren’t some of the planned renovations considered when the building was constructed? For example, part of the costs include wider passages for visitors and improved concession stands. These seem like basic design needs that should have been addressed when the building was designed.

“”A contemporary facility has changed so much,”” says the Tacoma Dome’s Assistant Director Jody Hodgson. ““I don’t think they contemplated the types of multiple uses, events, and traffic patterns. When they built the Tacoma Dome in 1983, I can’t imagine they ever believed facilities like ours would be selling lattes. Concession stands were built for hot dogs, beer, pop, popcorn, and pretzels. Concession spaces were small.””

How does Sylves envision funding for renovations at the Tacoma Dome? Through a recommendation for a bond proposal that the City Council will decide on in early-2005.

Such a proposal would be different than recent bond proposals. The bonds that initially funded construction of the Tacoma dome 25 years ago expire in 2005. The new proposal would be a “tax-neutral” re-issuance of that bond. By re-issuing the financial package, Sylves explains, the net effect is neutral to the property owner.

It seems a little too premature to focus on the dome right now — particularly if the issue won’t go to the City Council again until early-2005, and (potentially) voters next spring. But Sylves is already busy sharing the dome’s needs with residents and soliciting feedback. Last week, she made a presentation entitled “‘Recapturing the Magic”’ to City Club members. She continues to work with community members on direction and input. “”What do people want us to do with the dome?”” Sylves asks. ““We were nervous about this. We wanted to make sure it made sense. Do we even ask people to re-invest in the building, or would this property be more valuable some other way?“”

Tacoma Dome operators argue that the investment does make sense. The dome’s economic impact is $42 million annually. Total aggregate spending by dome attendees, participants, and event producers is $46 million annually ($25 million of that is new money from visitors and outside sources).

Sylves and Hodgson will continue to collect feedback from the community, and provide quarterly updates to the City Council. If the council does decide to present this issue to the voters next spring, dome operators face some hurdles. Passage will require a 60 percent approval rating from voters.

Additionally, a special election that follows a general election requires that 40 percent of the total number of voters in the general election turn out for the special election — and voter turnout for the 2004 election is predicted to be high. “”We have our work cut out for us,”” says Hodgson.

“”It’s going to be up to us to give our policy-makers the best industry and market-research information we can,”” says Sylves. “”Hopefully they will make the right decision and propose the right thing for constituents.””

SIDEBAR ARTICLE: Tacoma Dome Trivia

*Ground breaking for the facility took place on July 1, 1981.  The building was constructed in less than two years and officially opened on April 21, 1983.

*The Tacoma Dome’s roof was built with 1.6 million board feet and weighs 1,444,000 pounds.

*24,541,382 cubic feet of concrete was used in the construction of the Tacoma Dome.  This is enough to build a sidewalk 70 miles long.

*The Tacoma Dome is 530 feet in diameter and 152 feet tall.

*The fastest concert sellout in the venue’s history was the Backstreet Boys in 1999 in 38 minutes.

*The fastest non-concert sellout was the May 2000 presentation of WWF Smackdown in 27 minutes.

*The top grossing show was The Rolling Stones, with over  $2.4 million in gross receipts on November 6, 2002.

*The largest general admission concerts were The Police, Scorpions and Motley Crue, each show attracting 30,000 fans.

*The largest reserved seat concert was Bruce Springsteen, with over 23,000 fans in attendance on April 4, 2000.

Source: Tacoma Dome