Competitor protests state money for sports dome

Posted: Tuesday, May 22, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Owners of a private indoor sports complex have objected to a $1.5 million state grant that will bail out a competing facility, an inflatable dome owned by a nonprofit group.

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Lawmakers approved the grant to the SportsDome at ChangePoint and $1.8 billion in other public works spending Wednesday, minutes before adjourning the regular legislative session.

Steve Agni, part owner of the Cellular One Sports Center in South Anchorage, heard about the dome money Wednesday. He protested by letter to legislators and Gov. Sarah Palin.

"At a time when we are purging influence peddling and special interest from government, how does this one pass the straight-face test?" he wrote

Mike O'Connor of Ouzinkie Native Corp., another Cellular One partner, made a similar protest.

"We believe it is outrageous for the state ... to provide public financing for a facility that will compete with a privately financed facility," he said in another letter

As the House considered the capital budget Wednesday night, state Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, noted O'Connor's objections.

"It just doesn't seem right that the state is helping one organization and the other is on its own," she said.

The SportsDome, still under construction, will offer a year-round venue for some of those same sports. It also has a 400-meter indoor track, a soccer field and room for softball.

The SportsDome ran into financial trouble over the fall and winter, said Scott Merriner, pastor of the ChangePoint church. A nonprofit organization affiliated with ChangePoint, GraceAlaska, will operate the dome.

Heavy rains in August and September saturated peat that was to be removed from the site. A gravel pit had offered to take the peat for free but could no longer use it, Merriner said. It cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to haul away the unwanted soil, he said.

The project was delayed by a deep freeze in November as workers tried to put in the dome's foundation.

"About the only option we had was to ask the state for financing," Merriner said.

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