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World photo/Don Seabrook

On September 14, Sysco brought its traveling food show to Town Toyota Center.

WENATCHEE — It’s just before 6 on a crisp fall morning, and figure skaters are quietly filing into the Town Toyota Center.

The arena staff has been here for an hour, preparing the ice, cranking up the heaters and getting ready for a full day of activities.

A dry-erase board on the wall lays out the day: figure skating, then lunch-time hockey, a jam-packed afternoon of youth hockey practices, and finishing up with adult recreational hockey late into the evening at the community rink. Next door at the main ice arena, the Wenatchee Wild have their practice, followed by higher-level junior teams. A note at the bottom of the board has upcoming events: Amy Grant concert, a Latino rodeo, and a curling tournament.

There’s hardly a lull in activity at the center from before the sun rises until long after it sets.

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The Town Toyota Center is viewed by many in the community as a white elephant, a financial noose around the neck of Wenatchee that is threatening to hang the community with its nearly $42 million construction debt. But while the 3-year-old center is sitting squarely under a dark cloud of debt, it is hardly sitting idle.

Staff transforms arena — from the ground up

Bull riding, food booths, Christian music and hockey are a lot to crowd into one arena in less than a week.

It means switching from bare ice to dirt to chairs and back to ice again — and a lot of long nights for the people who have to make the transition.

During one five-day span in September, the Town Toyota Center’s main arena was used for a rodeo on Sunday, a large food show on Wednesday, the Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith concert on Thursday and was the cleared back to bare ice by mid-day Friday for the Wenatchee Wild’s hockey practice.

“It can get really crazy around here sometimes,” said Eddy Mattson, operations manager for the facility.

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The Wenatchee World spent the month of September keeping tabs on all the activities that drew people an estimated 15,400 people, not counting parents and others who attended amateur sporting events.

Some things were not so surprising. The Wenatchee Wild hockey team was the biggest draw, with more than 6,000 people attending two games late in the month and another 1,400 at a free Kids Day exhibition game.

Little things — practices for youth and adult hockey teams, public skating, skating lessons, league play — altogether brought in nearly as people as the Wild.

Meanwhile, the big-name attractions were behind in the numbers game: 1,848 for Christian singers Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith and a dismal 926 for the much-hyped Il Cirque Vaggio.

One of the biggest events was a locally-organized Hispanic rodeo that brought in 1,200 fans, truckloads of dirt and four angry bulls.

And a curling event attracted 75 competitors and another 200 spectators.

“People in the community say there is nothing going on here. But all they see are the big events,” said Eddy Mattson, the arena’s operations manager. At times, it’s even a little too busy, he said. “We’re busy from 6 in the morning until 11 at night almost every day of the week. There’s hardly any free ice time all day long.”

Women’s hockey player and tournament organizer Casi Tarr said all the little skating and other events held throughout the year at the arena have a huge benefit for the community.

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World photo/Don Seabrook

Lots of different events call for many different signs.

Tarr has organized 10 adult hockey tournaments at the arena in the last year, including an iron man tournament in September. This weekend, two dozen teams from around the Northwest are in town for the Hot Autumn Ice women’s hockey tournament.

“All these people are staying in hotels, eating in restaurants,” she said. “Then they go home and tell all their buddies that Wenatchee is so cool and we have this awesome arena.”

She added that kid’s hockey tournaments not only bring in athletes but their parents as well. “Ten kids on a hockey team become 40 people,” she said. “I try to stay out of all the political stuff surrounding the center, but it is a huge benefit for the community.”

Tarr said she receives a dozen e-mails a week from hockey players in other communities asking when they can come play a tournament at the center.

“That place sells itself,” she said of the arena. “It’s easy to get people to come back. The hard part is finding free weekends to schedule stuff.”

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World photo/Don Seabrook

The main ice arena at the Town Toyota Center isn’t reserved for just the big kids. Here, a team made up of 9- to 10-year-olds practice Sept. 22.

Likewise, Brion Salter, who plays hockey, has two daughters in figure skating and sits on the board of the Wenatchee Figure Skating Club, spent several days at the rink in September and throughout the year. He said they are at the rink five to six days a week, sometimes multiple times a day between all their practices, lessons and games.

He said that the figure skating club used to host an annual competition at the old ice rink at the foot of Fifth Street that was primarily for local club members. They often traveled out of town for bigger competitions. Since moving to the Town Toyota Center, the event has grown and gained a reputation, and now attracts 150 families for the three-day event that come from as far away as Alaska.

Mattson said that after three years of operation, the Town Toyota Center is still a new center. It’s new on the concert and events circuit, so many performers still don’t know it’s here. But as word of mouth spreads, some performing groups are starting to request dates at the center — rather than waiting to be asked — and groups that have performed there before are asking to come back.

As Amy Grant’s crew was setting up for her concert in mid September, the Christian singer ventured over into Walla Walla Point Park to stretch her legs. During her concert that night, she raved about the arena’s setting and the community.

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World photo/Don Seabrook

A person meets with a group at a luncheon for the Wenatchee Downtown Business Association on Sept. 20 in a room that looks over the Columbia River at the Town Toyota Center, outside the empty main arena.

On the last day of the month, lawmakers, state officials and representatives from all nine municipalities that helped build the center crowded into a room just off the main ice rink to talk about how to pay for the place.

Assistant state Treasurer Wolfgang Opitz reminded the group that there was much enthusiasm surrounding the construction of “this beautiful building” three years ago. Somewhere along the way, though, something got broke and the building has not been able to pay for itself. Now it’s up to the community to figure out how to do it, he said.

Since then, the calender continues to tick closer to the Dec. 1 deadline for repaying the current short-term debt on the arena. The chance of avoiding defaults seems less and less likely. And the debate, accusations, anger, defiance and uncertainty surrounding how it will be paid for continues to weigh heavily on the facility and its staff.

So Mattson sits in his small office, busily preparing for the arena’s next events, making sure the ice is always prepared for each daily user group, and trying to save as much money as he can on operations.

“Wenatchee really doesn’t know what it has here,” Mattson said. “We have a crown jewel of a building that is busy nearly all of the time.”

Michelle McNiel: 664-7152

mcniel@wenatcheeworld.com

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