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North Idaho College seeks event center funding

Now is the time to build an event center in Coeur d’Alene for sports, trade shows and community gatherings, North Idaho College officials told the city’s urban renewal agency Thursday.

NIC, which would own and operate the building, anticipates asking for $10 million in urban renewal financing for the project, President Joe Dunlap said.

Another $5 million would come from private fundraising, and the college would need an estimated $250,000 a year initially to cover operating expenses, Dunlap told the Lake City Development Corporation board.

While enthusiastic about the potential for a sports and event center, NIC doesn’t have the money to make it a reality, emphasized Dunlap and Ken Howard, president of the college board of trustees.

“We cannot move forward on this and put any money into it,” Howard said Thursday at a strategic planning meeting of the LCDC board, which governs the independent public redevelopment agency.

Urban renewal backing and private donations are the only way the project will happen, Dunlap said. He noted that NIC’s share of state funding has declined 14 percent in the past five years.

“The funds available for capital construction projects for colleges and universities are absolutely nonexistent today,” he said.

Also, NIC has a higher priority: construction of a new professional-technical education building estimated to cost as much as $35 million, Howard said. With only $6.4 million in its capital budget reserve fund, the college has not figured out how it will pay for that project.

The proposed event center, to be built in the Riverstone development about two miles north of the NIC campus, would replace the 64-year-old Christianson Gymnasium, which college officials describe as the worst in the Scenic West Athletic Conference.

The new facility would host NIC basketball and volleyball games, commencement ceremonies and other college events. It also would be available for youth sports tournaments, high school graduations, concerts, trade shows, club sports and other community events.

The price tag is about $15 million, including $2.5 million to buy the 7-acre piece of land, according to NIC estimates. An endowment of an additional $5 million would cover operating costs the first five years, according to an NIC review of the proposal.

Although the challenge of funding the project is considerable, low bond rates and favorable material and labor prices make this an ideal time to move forward on it, Dunlap said.

“We are probably never going to see a better time to invest in a project like this,” he said.

The event center would seat up to 5,000 people and could be reconfigured to open up more than 60,000 square feet of floor space, according to a preliminary design.

A facility like that would draw a lot of big events and bring in millions of dollars in new business revenue each year, proponents say. The largest venue in Coeur d’Alene now is NIC’s Schuler Auditorium, which seats just 1,178.

The new building would keep local events from looking to Spokane for adequate space, Dunlap said.

“We believe that this project is one that can help bring that business back across the border rather than sending it the other way,” he said.

Case in point, he said: “In 2014, North Idaho College has been selected to host the national wrestling championship – in Spokane – because we don’t have an event center here that is capable of housing that large of an event. We end up taking that business, taking that stimulus, over to Spokane.”

If LCDC’s board approves the request, the agency would borrow the $10 million and repay it from property tax revenue arising from its river district. Created in 2003, that redevelopment district lies between Interstate 90 and the Spokane River, from the west end of Riverstone west to Huetter Road.

“It’s likely within the potential ability of that district to generate that much money over the life of the district,” said LCDC Board Chairman Denny Davis.

“If I were to sort of gauge the sentiment on the board, I think there is some support for this kind of a project at some level, financially,” Davis said.

But the board first would want to make sure NIC can raise the other money needed for the project and that public support for it is strong, he said. It also would want guarantees that the event center would be available for community functions, he said.

NIC figures it would use the event center 240 days a year and open it to community use about 125 days a year.