Since it opened as Sports USA in 2004, few have doubted the benefits of a 66,500-square-foot multipurpose venue nestled near the western border of Liberty Lake.
In its latest incarnation as the HUB Sports Center, locals continue to speak of the facility’s benefit to the community, from sponsoring programs for kids to hosting a range of events that have a ripple effect on the area economy.
On Tuesday night, Phil Champlin, HUB executive director, appeared before the Liberty Lake City Council to review the list of positives and rally support for a structure that finds itself as the latest addition to the Inland Northwest real estate market.
After announcing the building had been put up for sale last month, HUB officials are doing their best to generate interest in preserving the site as a civic gathering place. Champlin told Liberty Lake leaders that the window for accomplishing that feat is closing fast.
“It needs to stay here for the community and not become a warehouse,” he said. “By the end of June, we could be closing the doors unless we book some events.”
While the HUB recently earned status as a 501c3 nonprofit, Champlin said any sort of revenue from grants would likely be “six months to a year away.”
Champlin said he has had difficulty scheduling tournaments, leagues and camps due to the tenuous nature of the HUB’s future. Sponsors and advertisers are also in a holding pattern. While the HUB is covering operating expenses, Champlin said the task of paying the facility’s $10,000 a month rent has become a sticking point. While board members have stepped up to help foot the bill in the past, Champlin said the time has come to find a new owner or move on.
“We don’t know if we’ll be open in July,” he said.
The good news, according to Champlin, is that the HUB has made a significant turnaround in its ability to bring in operating revenue over the past year, going from a deficit of around $40,000 to a current surplus of $11,000. The problem has to do with not being able to raise enough capital to make a legitimate offer on the building and 3.5 acres of surrounding land, currently listed at $4 million.
Champlin told the Liberty Lake Council on Tuesday that a more realistic figure would be around $5 million which would include a budget for capital improvements. Liberty Lake did approve $30,000 for the HUB last year to go toward marketing costs. When Champlin asked the council if those funds could be utilized for operating expenses, Liberty Lake Mayor Wendy Van Orman said it would be a matter for the city’s tourism committee.
After Champlin addressed the council, Eric Sawyer, executive director of the Spokane Regional Sports Commission, gave an account of the area’s lack of available gym space, a deficit first identified in 1999 when Spokane County commissioned an inventory that found the area was short 31 recreational courts.
“The HUB was the first piece to answering that deficit,” Sawyer said. “It has proven itself as a site to host regional and national events.”
The HUB is currently the third largest sports venue in Spokane County, trailing only the Spokane Arena and Gonzaga’s McCarthey Center. The building is home to a wide range of programs and events, including AAU basketball, fitness classes, YMCA tournaments and leagues and the Pacific Northwest Qualifier volleyball tournament. Champlin said events at the HUB brought in an estimated $1.2 million to the local economy last year.
Both Champlin and Sawyer emphasized that the HUB was not requesting that Liberty Lake approve a purchase of the building right away, but simply “asking for some leadership,” in Sawyer’s words. Collaborations with the city of Spokane Valley and Spokane County were also discussed. Sale to a private entity is also a possibility, though no group has yet emerged.
Council Member Susan Schuler expressed concern that the ultimate financial obligation would be shouldered by Liberty Lake.
“It’s been on our agenda so many times,” she said. “No one else is going to step up.”
Responding to Schuler’s question about how an historically embattled project could be made profitable, Sawyer pointed to examples like the Spokane Convention Center and public golf courses that may not generate profit but provide a community benefit.
“That’s what cities do,” he said.
Van Orman raised the possibility of establishing a municipal park district that could place a capital facilities bond on the ballot to raise funds for the HUB. She said the initiative would likely be in the range of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, the same percentage currently being collected for the Liberty Lake Library.
“That raises $550,000 a year,” Van Orman said.
The mayor indicated that any voting measure would need to be approved by the city by the first part of August in order to qualify for the November ballot.
At the end of the discussion, a trio of council members – Josh Beckett, David Crump and Ryan Romney – volunteered to serve on a committee that would meet with representatives from the HUB and the sports commission as well as other entities such as Spokane Valley that show an interest in maintaining the facility.
“This is part of our mandate,” Crump said. “Let’s have some meetings where we actually move forward.”