Editorial: Back to arena basics: Get a strategy
By Register Editorial Board


Polk County officials began negotiations last November with local investors interested in bringing a minor-league hockey team to Des Moines. Four months later, all the county has to show for its efforts are sore feelings among those investors and growing doubts that the county knows where it is going.

In short, it is not looking good.

This is a profoundly important project, and not just for Des Moines or Polk County. Communities throughout the metropolitan area contributed to building a new arena and convention center, and they are counting on it to succeed. The state of Iowa is investing $50 million of Vision Iowa money in the project.

With the Iowa Events Center scheduled to open next fall and the arena in mid-'05, some critically important decisions have yet to be made. Namely: How will the county operate the $218 million complex that includes Veterans Auditorium, a new convention center and the multipurpose arena? Will the arena have a sports-franchise tenant? Who will manage the arena? Will the same manager also handle the other facilities?

These questions should have been addressed long ago, but the county seems further away from answering them now than ever. If the county's approach heretofore has not been reassuring, last week's news is cause for alarm:

After negotiations foundered with the group that owns the American Hockey League Minnesota Wild, Polk officials began courting other minor-league teams - from leagues a notch or two below the AHL - and on Thursday the Minnesota group backed out.

So the county is back at square one.

This is a good point to examine some of the assumptions driving Polk County's actions:

* There must be a hockey team in the arena. Oh, really? Hockey appears to be the most potentially viable sports tenant, and county officials have long had it in mind, but the arena was designed to accommodate just about any sport. Arenas in many cities get by without sports-franchise tenants.

* The tenant must have exclusive rights to control every aspect of the arena. Oh, really? That is not the only way public arenas are managed in other parts of the country, and it's not the only option for this one.

* Any hockey franchise will do. Oh, really? Do we really need to plumb the lower levels of minor-league hockey just to get a team - any team? A deal with the Minnesota Wild made sense because 1) the management team has an excellent track record in St. Paul, 2) the high-quality AHL would be more likely to succeed here, 3) there is a logical regional connection between St. Paul and Des Moines, and 4) a high-profile group of local investors would have a stake in the team's success.

* The Iowa Events Center will be a failure if it loses money. Oh, really? All income-vs.-expense projections for this project have largely been guesswork, but it's a good bet the facility will lose money - as does the existing Polk County Convention Complex and virtually every other public convention facility in the nation. The county only promised that it won't raise property taxes to cover deficits, and there is no reason to believe it can't keep that promise.

It was fair to assume, however, that the Polk County Board of Supervisors would have a strategy for how it intended to manage and operate the Iowa Events Center, whether a sports franchise is essential and what sort of franchise that might be. But no strategy is evident. Then, again, no one outside of a small number of Polk County officials and hockey investors knows precisely what is going on: The negotiations have been secret and the county has even filed lawsuits to avoid having to reveal documents.

It is not too late to rescue this process from sliding into total oblivion, but it is getting dangerously close.

Rather than back into a decision, the county should turn the process around and set general guiding principles first for how the Iowa Events Center will be managed and whether a sports franchise is essential and then implement that strategy.

Finally, the board of supervisors must open up this process to the public, invite comment and do its work in the open.

Working in secrecy encourages the public to assume the worst. So far, there is no reason to think otherwise.