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Tri-City Americans speak up on hockey’s future at Toyota Center

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 10, 2017, 3:04 p.m.

The Spokane Chiefs’ Mike Aviani, left, celebrates his goal during a 2014 Western Hockey League playoff game against the Tri-City Americans at the Toyota Center in Kennewick. (Kai-Huei Yau/Tri-City Herald / Kai-Huei Yau/Tri-City Herald)
The Spokane Chiefs’ Mike Aviani, left, celebrates his goal during a 2014 Western Hockey League playoff game against the Tri-City Americans at the Toyota Center in Kennewick. (Kai-Huei Yau/Tri-City Herald / Kai-Huei Yau/Tri-City Herald)

The Tri-City Americans hoped Kennewick would approve a sales tax to pay for updates to its home, the Toyota Center.

After The Link failed by a large margin Tuesday, the hockey team is revisiting its future at an arena one executive called one of the worst in the Western Hockey League.

The team and Toyota Center face a September 2019 deadline to comply with new WHL requirements concerning player safety and fan amenities.

Among its demands: It wants arenas to install new acrylic boards around the ice. The new designs help reduce injuries to players when they collide with the wall.

The Tri-City Americans pay $160,000 and other consideration to lease the 7,200-seat Toyota Center (5,797 seats for hockey), which is managed by the Kennewick Public Facilities District on behalf of the city of Kennewick, which owns it.

It was known as the Tri-Cities Coliseum until a $260,000-a-year naming rights deal with a consortium of Toyota dealers gave it its current name.

WHL Commissioner Ron Robison said the league’s new requirements must be in place by the start of the 2019-20 season. He characterized the requirements as non-negotiable.

The league wants an action plan. Failing that, it will consider other options.

“Let’s hope we can find a solution,” he said. “We certainly want to keep them there. That’s our objective.”

Had it been approved, The Link would have raised the Kennewick sales tax by two-tenths of a percent, or two cents on a $10 purchase. After the latest count Thursday, it was failing 56 percent to 44 percent out of 11,329 ballots cast.

The revenue would have supported up to $45 million in bond debt to pay for an array of projects at the Three Rivers campus. The list of projects include an expansion of the Three Rivers Convention Center, a 2,300-seat theater, added parking and a modernization of the Toyota Center, which is nearing its fourth decade.

Prior to the election, advocates of Proposition 14 emphasized the economic benefits of expanding the convention center and cultural ones for the Broadway-style theater. The pitch mentioned Toyota Center in terms of new seating, handrails, an expanded concourse and better seating for people with disabilities.

At 30, Toyota Center is showing its age. Bob Tory, co-owner and general manager of the Americans, called the visitor locker rooms a disgrace. The center has no water filter, which affects the quality of the ice. There’s no dehumidifier, and seating is uncomfortable.

“The infrastructure is certainly in trouble,” he said.

That isn’t to say it is neglected. The city budgets $350,000 annually for upgrades and maintenance, with money coming from its general fund and from the lodging tax levied on hotel visitors.

In recent years, city money has paid for video signs, roof repairs, bathroom updates and more. The city itself is committed to keeping one of its biggest tenants happy, although City Manager Marie Mosley conceded there was no “Plan B” in the event The Link failed.

She said the city, working through its partner, the facilities district, will keep working to prioritize projects.

“We certainly value the Americans in our community,” she said. “We want to continue to have hockey.”

Robison and Tory both expressed disappointment that voters aren’t willing to support the Three Rivers campus. Both vowed to work with the city on a plan to meet the team’s requirements.

“I would love to be on a committee with the city working toward a solution,” Tory said.

Neither Robison nor Tory suggested the Americans might leave Kennewick. But they didn’t deny the possibility either.

Tory said team expenses have doubled under current ownership while revenue has been flat.

“There comes a time when that doesn’t make sense any more,” he said.

The Americans’ lease runs through 2020, but contains language that allows it to negotiate for a lower rent or even an early termination if it isn’t up to WHL standards.

Tory joined the Americans as general manager 18 years ago at a time when a succession of owners was itching to move the team to Canada. He formed a new management group about 12 years ago and cemented its roots in Kennewick.

Tory pegs the team’s impact on the Tri-City economy at $10 million through game-related activities, business deals and multiplier effects.

He’s proud of its history of community involvement and the stability the current owners brought. An attendance slide was reversed, and the team has made some investments in the center it leases, including modest locker room updates.

“We have been good tenants. We have never made any threats to leave,” he said, adding that there’s more at stake than a hockey team.

The Toyota Center does not reflect well on a community as large and prosperous as the Tri-Cities, Washington’s fastest-growing job market in 2016.

“If you look around the WHL, our facility is not just the worst facility in the U.S. Division, but it’s probably at the very bottom of the league as far as the quality of the amenities,” he said.