If Coeur d'Alene is ever going to have an event center, the time isn't now and Riverstone certainly isn't the place.
This week, the city's urban renewal agency, Lake City Development Corp., agreed to fund $10 million toward construction of a multi-purpose event center at Riverstone if North Idaho College, the primary beneficiary of the center, can raise an additional $5 million for the project.
We're stunned that NIC would step so far outside its educational mission as a community college - and beyond the 17-acre corridor it purchased five years ago at a cost of $10 million - to prioritize this ill-conceived project and push it into hyperdrive. And we're disappointed that LCDC, perhaps in political panic mode, would even consider committing almost every future penny it could generate in the River District to such a risky venture.
The Press editorial board has reviewed both feasibility studies on a Riverstone-based event center, the first produced in 2008 by Conventions, Sports & Leisure, International, and the other a two-year-old revision by John Stone, Riverstone's owner. Among the conclusions we've reached:
* Unrealistic booking projections. Regional competition for events, ranging from high school sports to higher profile concerts, already is intense, and it's only going to become more competitive. Spokane offers venues for a multitude of attractions, and the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's event facilities present another established alternative. Further, the University of Idaho is in the process of building a $25 million event center of its own. We see no evidence in either Riverstone study that locals are in any position to compete at that level and bolster the economy.
* Unacceptable risk to taxpayers. Across the country, event centers are losing money - in many cases, in the millions. Given the competitive disadvantages Coeur d'Alene already would face, the chance that taxpayers would be left footing perpetual bills covering losses is irresponsibly high.
* Unacceptable design. Plans for this facility amount to little more than a 4,500-seat pole barn with a little makeup. If something can cost $15 million and still look cheap, designs for this project fit the bill. It would not represent Coeur d'Alene the way we believe the city and its residents deserve to be represented.
What's happening here is clear: NIC is desperate to grab the "free dollars" that would make a project like this possible - urban renewal funds with potentially a very limited shelf life. Depending upon how city elections go this November, the urban renewal agency could be curtailed or even disbanded, but its commitments would have to be honored. LCDC appears eager to make those commitments to assure its continued operation for years to come, even if it's only to make good on old promises.
If there is any future for a Coeur d'Alene event center, some believe it should be privately financed, with the risks and rewards borne by investors, not taxpayers. We'd feel better if a current and objective study could be completed before any serious talk were to continue. Only then should the merits of a project of this scope be seriously considered.
North Idaho College, which was stung by a recent national report showing its students are defaulting on loans at a greater rate than they're graduating, should be fully focused on its academic and professional-technical pursuits, including expanding its PTE program to meet future employment needs.
We strongly urge the NIC Board of Trustees to put a decisive end to its part in the potential disaster that investing heavily in an ugly, offsite event center represents. You've got enough to do preparing your students for life's challenges ahead.