County discusses potential fun center

April 19, 2017 GMT

The Kittitas County commissioners sat down with the members of the Mel’s Bowl and Fun Center Advisory Board to continue discussions about the Rodeo City Bowling Alley on Monday.

Members of the organization wanted to know from commissioners what they would need to make their business plan viable, said Michael Burtness, head sponsor of the project. The group proposed renting the facility for $0 for the first six months, $1,000 for the second six months and then continuing rent at $1,500. The center would pay about $168,000 over its 10-year lease. The county would pay for the roof, HVAC system and other repairs at around $130,000.

“We don’t have a bowling alley, we don’t have a putt putt golf course, we don’t have an ice skating rink, we don’t have a lot of things to do or for families to attend as groups,” Burtness said. “We just want it to be an area where people can come in and have a good time on a terrible day and not even only on a terrible day.”

The group is proposing to turn the bowling alley into a fun center based off a similar project in Santa Fe, New Mexico, called Meow Wolf. The project is described as an “immersive and interactive” fun center and would include six bowling lanes and a putt putt golf course.

According to Meow Wolf’s website, “Our work is a combination of jungle gym, haunted house, children’s museum and immersive art exhibit. This unique fusion of art and entertainment gives audiences fictional worlds to explore.”

The Kittitas County Board of Commissioners expressed hesitancy in renting the property under such an agreement. According to their estimates, at market rate, the building should be rented at around $7,000 a month so it doesn’t compete with private property, Commissioner Paul Jewell said.

“We’re not doing anything with the building so we’re open to ideas, but the county isn’t going to take an ownership interest or a risk interest or a partner interest in any sort of project like that,” Jewell said.

In September a group approached the county about renting the space and turning it into a western style dance hall. The group asked for $1,500 a month rent as well.

County concerns

The cost to replace the roof for the county will be around $50,000, Jewell said. The county will also likely have to replace the HVAC system for another $50,000 and was going to sell the remaining bowling equipment for $20,000. Fun center advocates have requested use of the bowling equipment.

“So now the county is in for this operation $130,000 right out of the gate. That is government money that is taxpayer money,” Jewell said. “If this were purely economic that doesn’t pencil out with a return on investment. No way, no how, no shape, no form.”

The county has decided to keep the bowling alley at this point and use it for storage, he said. It will allow the county to consolidate and perhaps stop paying for storage facilities it currently uses.

“We see that as good value for $50,000 we get 15,000 square feet of storage,” Jewell said. “You can never build 15,000 feet of storage for $50,000.”

If the project went under, it could fall on the county to support it at great expense to the taxpayers, he said. It is not proper for the county to gamble with taxpayer money, he said.

“(If) it is losing money any right-minded organization would shut it down. Now there is an upswell from the community that they don’t want to shut it down at any cost and then it becomes a real political issue,” Jewell said. “And we’re are very sensitive about getting involved in that sort of thing.”

Commissioner Obie O’Brien said he is not opposed to the idea of the activity center and would like to see it work if at all possible. But he wants to make sure there is a good economic model setup for the project.

“Keep in mind the history of this building it used to be a bowling alley and it stopped being a bowling alley because it stopped being a viable business,” O’Brien said. “There was also a Children’s Activity Museum here but for all the volunteer support they had they could never get enough cash flowing to be able to support the needs of the building.”

Commissioner Laura Osiadacz said the commissioners would love to see something like this in the community, but the board had a responsibility to be careful stewards of taxpayer money.

“I think the only concern is as elected officials for Kittitas County we want something that is good for the community and the area,” Osiadacz said. “But it is not for us to fund the project and we want to make sure that we’re being responsible with the taxpayers’ dollars.”

Fun center support

Janette Paulson of Ellensburg said children in the community need activities. There are few programs or places for kids to go after school.

“We have a need for this in the community like no other I have ever seen,” Paulson said. “There is nothing to do here. Even my college grandchildren complain about nothing to do.”

Monica Miller, a proponent of the fun center, argued that what the organization wants to do with the bowling alley is unlike anything else in the community and would not be in competition with other private businesses. Also the bowling alley is the largest piece of real estate available and so there isn’t another property for the space to compete against.

“It is unique it is the only out of use bowling alley. There is no other bowling alley with all the equipment and 15,000 square feet,“ Miller said. “So there is no competition.”

Burtness said he thinks the fun center is a real opportunity for the community. If the bowling alley becomes an empty building used for storage it would be a shame.

“In the meantime you tear it down or you clear it out and it becomes this empty building that had an opportunity to be an amusement place for families,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me for storage.”

Funding ideas

The board of commissioners and the fun center supporters discussed some ideas for making the project economically viable. Burtness floated the concept of the group making some of the repairs to lower the cost to the county.

Jewell supported the idea saying the county could compromise on the monthly rent if some improvements were made.

“Then we are looking at it with different eyes because now that is an asset improvement that the county now owns,” Jewell said. “So in return for that you would get a discounted rate.”

Jill Scheffer, Kittitas Valley Event Center director, said the county could form some sort of private, public partnership with the fun center.

“I think there is opportunities just hearing from my staff how much interest there is in party facilities, Quincenaros and sort of places that are more than just a room. So I think there is opportunity there,” Scheffer said.

The fun center group asked for a list of minimum requirements for making the project viable. Jewell said it could be difficult to supply those because of the different dynamics if the group paid for some of the repairs, but he would try.

“It really depends on how that mix comes together as a financial package,” he said. “What I can try to do is a rough estimate based on the things that you’re asking.”

If the county does not get a good return on its investment then it would be subsidizing the fun center, Jewell said. That would be a different discussion for the county, but one it could engage in.

“We don’t factor that, then we are subsidizing it with public money,” he said. “But if you’re asking us to subsidize your proposal then let us just say that is what you’re asking us to do and we will evaluate it in that fashion.”