Tacoma Dome marks 35 years with $30 million in renovations

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A deeper loading dock will accommodate long-bed semis to back up closer to the Dome and unload gear and concert set-up essentials. Rendering courtesy of City of Tacoma

It was March 18, 1980 when a pivotal move made by Tacoma voters would forever change the economic and cultural trajectory of the City of Destiny.

On that historic day, 70 percent of voters responded with a resounding “yes” to approve the $27.95 million bond issue to fund construction of the Tacoma Dome. The “Dome of Our Own” campaign had succeeded, and then-Pierce County Auditor Dick Greco said he had never seen anything like it.

Kelly McNew, who at the time was in his late 20s, said he remembers disagreeing with the notion that taxpayers would front the bill for construction of the Dome. But 38 years later, McNew, at age 65, works as a maintenance worker II on the conversion crew – essentially responsible for getting the stage ready for various concerts, sporting events, and high school graduation programs, requiring the laborious removal of the dated, metal seats to the parking lot.

McNew said he is thankful for his job, and also now for the anticipated renovations of the Dome, which will begin in late June when the Dome will close for the summer and reopen the first week of October in time for Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods Tour in November. The $30 million renovations will include the installment of all new modern-day retractable seating, featuring wider seats made of hard, molded plastic and extra leg room to accommodate the 21st century American body.

“I am really anxious to see the new seats come in,” McNew said. “I hear an earful (from people) of how uncomfortable the seats are and the lack of leg room.”

With the new seats, McNew and his team will now be able to retract the seats in the bowl, rather than using a forklift to take them out to the parking lot and back, thus freeing up much needed parking on the east side of the Dome. McNew said this change will make his job more efficient, saving up hours to apply more time for maintenance. The time savings will also open the venue to an additional five to seven concerts per year on top of the already 12 to 15 regularly-booked concerts.

Kim Bedier, director of Tacoma venues and events, said seating comfort for guests will go from two to 10.

“We’re asking them to spend hundreds of dollars and sit on a bench,” Bedier said. “This will improve their experience.”

A replica of the Dome in cake form made by Celebrity Cake Studios marked the 35th birthday of the Tacoma Dome at a City-hosted party on April 20. Photo by Andrew Fickes

Bedier said a lot of what the renovations project is focused on is enhancing the user experience, which includes spectators as well as artists and performers. When the Dome opened in April of 1983, it was designed with a sporting aspect, featuring team dressing rooms. Bedier said the renovations aim to remove that utilitarian feel and create new artist quarters, as well as production offices for crew members. These, Bedier said, will be more private for artists and crew and more isolated and detached from back-of-house food, beverage, and stage staff.

“We have a lot of artists already saying positive things about Tacoma,” said Bedier. “We want performers to remember Tacoma fondly.”

Renovations will also include the upgrading of existing restrooms and the addition of new restrooms on the event level to 52 toilets for women, and 18 toilets and 36 urinals for men, equating to 300 percent more capacity. Bedier said there will be the addition of a family restroom and a nursing mother’s room on the event level. For many years, Bedier said the City has unfortunately had to bring in porta-potties to the event level to provide additional facilities for shows. In this modern era of event venues, it is something the City would rather not do, Bedier said.

Other items budgeted for renovations include improved loading docks; exterior façade improvements; and security enhancements. Because of improved budget capacity, the budget has increased from the originally approved $21.3 million to now $30 million, allowing the City to add additional items for renovation, which comprise improvements to heating and air conditioning systems, lighting and audio.

Bedier said summer is the slower part of the year for the Dome, so it made sense to close for renovations at that time.

“We want to be open for the fall, because we want to capitalize on Key Arena’s closure,” Bedier explained.

The Tacoma Dome opened on April 21, 1983. Last Friday, April 20, the City hosted a birthday celebration at the Heritage Distillery garage to mark the 35th anniversary of the Dome. A replica of the Dome in cake form was made by Celebrity Cake Studios for the special occasion. Many of those instrumental in the campaign to make the Dome possible were in attendance.

Bert Johnson, the chair of the committee responsible for raising funds and carrying out an aggressive campaign to successfully pass a bond proposal large enough to fund the Dome, quipped that the past 35 years had gone by in a flash.

“The renovations for the Dome have been long overdue,” Johnson said. “Every building needs to be refreshed from time to time, especially one that provides a service to the public. I know the teams and entertainers and all of their support groups have been seeking and waiting for better accommodations. I can hardly wait for the upgrading and improvements to be completed so we can once again celebrate the reopening of ‘The Dome of Our Own.’”

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