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City council making plans to sell ‘jewel’ of Bellingham’s recreational facilities

Whatcom Sports & Recreation hopes to buy Bellingham’s Sportsplex

A nonprofit that runs the ice skating, soccer and hockey programs at the Sportsplex is asking the city of Bellingham, Wash., to sell the building to it so more than $1 million in repairs and improvements can be done.
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A nonprofit that runs the ice skating, soccer and hockey programs at the Sportsplex is asking the city of Bellingham, Wash., to sell the building to it so more than $1 million in repairs and improvements can be done.

The city plans to sell the Sportsplex building in the Civic Athletic Complex to the organization that runs the ice skating, soccer and hockey programs there.

The Bellingham City Council voted to do so Monday, May 6, by designating the city-owned indoor ice and soccer arena as surplus property, opening the way to negotiate a sale with Whatcom Sports & Recreation.

Whatcom Sports & Recreation asked the city to sell it the building at 1225 Civic Field Way.

The nonprofit, which leases the 21-year-old building, wants to buy it in order to have an asset to finance needed repairs and improvements, such as a new roof, insulation, bleachers, a sports bar on a second floor, an elevator and sealing the ice side away from the soccer side.

The group still needs to finalize those proposed repairs and improvements, Chet Lackey, the longtime president of Whatcom Sports & Recreation, told the city in an email.

Lackey estimated that buying the building and remodeling will total about $5 million, and repaying that loan would cost about the same amount of money that the organization now pays to the city to lease the Sportsplex.

Under the lease, Whatcom Sports & Recreation is responsible for all Sportsplex maintenance.

City Council member Gene Knutson called the Sportsplex a “jewel,” saying it was one of the most used recreational buildings in Bellingham.

He and other council members supported the idea of moving forward with negotiations for the building.

They praised Whatcom Sports & Recreation for the programs it has run at the Sportsplex over the years and for making them available to those children who are lower income.

The council wants such reasonable costs to continue and to be one of the conditions of the sale.

“I have a lot of confidence that they could be successful with this because they’re a really good organization,” Leslie Bryson, director of the Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department, told The Bellingham Herald.

“This is good for everybody. This is good for the people who use the facility,” Bryson said of the proposal. “I think it’s a good solution.”

The sale price and other conditions will go back before the City Council for its consideration within a few months, according to Bryson.

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The nonprofit Whatcom Sports & Recreation, which runs the ice skating, soccer and hockey programs at the Sportsplex, is asking the city of Bellingham to sell the building to it so it can finance repairs and improvements. Kie Relyea The Bellingham Herald

Sportsplex history

A business called Whitewater Ice Corp. built the Sportsplex on the city’s land in 1998.

When Whitewater decided to sell it, the owner said it was because he lost money on the Sportsplex every year and wanted to focus on his core business, according to a December 2003 Bellingham Herald story.

The city of Bellingham bought it from Whitewater in 2004.

At the time, the Whatcom Soccer Commission — the predecessor to Whatcom Sports & Recreation — already was running the Sportsplex under an agreement with Whitewater. The group had wanted to buy the Sportsplex then, but couldn’t pull together the financing when it was a much smaller organization.

So the city bought it, using a bond, and then leased the Sportsplex to Whatcom Sports & Recreation for the cost of the bond payments — roughly $300,000 a year, according to the Herald story.

Remaining payments for the bond total about $3 million, according to the city.

The lease payments now exceed the bond payments by about $20,000 a year, according to a city of Bellingham memo.

Whatcom Sports & Recreation believes it now has the ability to buy the building.

Financing could come through the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, which allows banks to lend money with tax-free interest, according to Lackey.

Whatcom Sports & Recreation still needs to apply for that financing.

In addition to the Sportsplex, the organization operates outdoor youth and soccer programs at the Phillips 66 Soccer Park off Northwest Drive.

The financing status for Whatcom Sports & Recreation’s proposal to buy and renovate the Sportsplex was corrected on May 10, 2019.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.

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