EVERETT — Four years ago, Fred Safstrom sat on the unfinished concrete stands of a still-roofless new arena that promised to change downtown.
Try as he might, he couldn’t imagine how the building that he was to manage would transform the city’s seediest stretch of downtown.
“That part of Hewitt was a big problem,” said Safstrom, who headed the Everett Events Center until last year. “There were no viable businesses down there, it was full of vagrants, transients, needles and police activity. No one wanted to be down there after dark.”
Fast-forward four years.
The same stretch of downtown Everett hosts a wine bar, specialty bakery and a multimillion-dollar entertainment complex that has drawn world-famous acts, such as Cher and the Black Eyed Peas, and attracts more than a half-million spectators who flock to the building every year.
The multipurpose complex, now called Comcast Arena at Everett Events Center, opened its doors to the public for the first time four years ago today.
The $71.5 million, publicly owned venue is home to the Everett Silvertips, a popular Western League Hockey team, and the Greater Everett Chamber of Commerce. It’s where most high schools in Snohomish County hold their graduation ceremonies.
The building includes a conference center, an ice arena that can hold 10,000 people for concerts and 8,500 for hockey games, and a second ice rink for skating lessons and other uses.
The facility is overseen by a five-member board of appointed public officials, and is managed by Global Spectrum, an arena management company owned by Philadelphia-based Comcast. Comcast bought naming rights to the arena and skating rink last month for $7.4 million in cash and advertising over the next 10 years.
While city officials had promised to deliver a new arena without raising taxes or requiring a city bailout, the urban renewal experiment still came with a battle.
The Everett Historical Commission protested the location as did neighborhood groups, a top state historic preservation official and a few downtown business owners who were to be displaced.
They wanted the arena site moved and turn-of-the-century brick buildings that housed a pawnshop, western clothing store, art house movie theater and Scottish Rite temple saved.
A group called Citizens for a Better Arena launched an initiative to block the Hewitt Avenue plan. Its members collected 4,000 signatures, and threatened to put the issue to a public vote.
That never happened.
Before the opponents could seek an injunction to stop the project, the city tore down the buildings.
The pre-emptive strike was taken as the city raced to qualify for a special state sales-tax rebate. Last year, the rebate was worth about $1.5 million, and supporters say the events center wouldn’t have been built without the extra funding.
Ed Hansen, Everett’s mayor at the time, said opponents failed to grasp the government’s motivation to build where it did.
“We did an awful lot of homework,” said Hansen, who was in office from 1994 to 2002.
The city last year renamed the conference center in the complex the Edward D. Hansen Conference Center in his honor.
Hansen’s administration in 2000 hired a prominent sports-facility consultant Brailsford &Dunlavey of Washington, D.C., to conduct a feasibility study for an indoor arena.
The consultant’s detailed report included market and site studies. City officials also visited arenas to see what effect they had on cities, and concluded there was no better location for a new arena in Everett than downtown. It had good topography, few buildings in the way and ample nearby parking; is visible from I-5 and Broadway; and is easy to get to.
“It really opened eyes that these types of facilities can work,” Hansen said.
The downtown proposal was controversial, and there were moments of doubts, even by supporters, but Hansen maintains it was the right move.
“You always hold your breath and you’re not always sure it was going to happen,” Hansen said. “But the location has proven to be very good.”
Since it was built, Hansen said several events center opponents have approached him to express a change of heart.
Charlene Rawson, a neighborhood activist and candidate for Everett City Council, who was at first against the project, counts herself among the converted.
“The events center is a great facility,” said Rawson. “Just look at the quantity of people using it all the time.”
Reporter David Chircop: 425-339-3429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.