Changing situation at TRAC puts burden on regional PFD

Building a large public facility in the Tri-Cities has its challenges. Just look at the list of projects that have been on the drawing board for years but have yet to see the light of day, from the Reach interpretive center to an aquatics park.

One thing has become much more clear about the aquatics center proposal -- if it is built, it won't be built at TRAC. Franklin County commissioners have said the facility, which it owns with Pasco, is no longer for sale.

Plans were percolating to retrofit the Pasco facility into an aquatics park. TRAC loses money every year -- as many public facilities do by their very nature -- and the Franklin County commissioners expressed interest in having Pasco buy of the county's share of the venue, freeing the county from annual operating losses.

The Pasco Public Facilities District suggested the water park plan, and the Regional Public Facilities District chose the aquatics center at TRAC as its top priority to put before the voters next year.

"This puts a monkey wrench in those plans," Kennewick City Council member Don Brittain said of the commissioners' decision to withdraw TRAC from the block.

The decision didn't come out of thin air, however. When the commissioners announced plans to sell the county's share of TRAC to Pasco and build a new equestrian facility on the Highway 395 corridor, there was a backlash from longtime residents who remember why TRAC was built in the first place.

The Trade, Recreation and Agricultural Center was built 20 years ago with a big push from the ag community. Those purposes ring as true today as they did two decades ago, said Commissioner Bob Koch.

Commissioner Rick Miller made the motion to discontinue negotiations with the city, and Koch seconded it. The third member of the commission, Brad Peck, strongly objected.

Peck wanted the city to take on the sole financial burden of TRAC, freeing the county from its share of up to a $400,000 in annual losses.

We don't blame Peck for trying to find ways to stem spending, but we also agree with the commissioners who rethought the sale of TRAC. Despite the rapid growth in Pasco and Franklin County, agriculture is a major economic driver in our area and TRAC is uniquely suited to serve that community, with an indoor arena and large exhibit hall.

TRAC is the default facility for events from barrel racing to bull riding to ag shows. Beyond agricultural events, it is home to antique shows, garage sales, concerts and a multitude of fundraising breakfasts and luncheons.

While it may not be perfect or profitable, very few public facilities are. By design, they are intended to serve the community and be affordable enough for public use. They are large facilities with expensive maintenance costs. But they serve a needed purpose by allowing for exhibits and events that drive the economy in other ways, bringing customers to hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other retailers.

With the removal of TRAC from the aquatics center equation, that project's proponents now know what they are dealing with. They'll have to find a new home and build the facility from scratch. That will give us all a better idea of what it will look like.

Getting a design out for public inspection would be a great next step, as many folks are confused as to what the aquatics center will be. Will it be an amusement park? A facility for serious swimmers and national competitions? Or maybe a bit of both?

One thing's for sure, the move by Franklin County should help the aquatics center proposal become more focused. Creating a plan for the public to review and now finding a home for it are at the top of the to-do list.