Feasibly, Ogden's field house feasibility study is right, maybe

Feb 5 2011 - 11:39pm

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A feasibility study for a field house in Ogden is much discussed, so we need to define the word "feasible."

When something is feasible, it is possible, but only if.

If what? If a lot. Feasibility studies for public works projects are strings of IFs, and those IFs have to happen before "feasible" becomes "real."

I'm not opposed to the field house, but I've gone through that study. It has lots of words, numbers and charts, but all I see is a giant IF.

Considering the amounts of money involved ($40 million or so) and the number of local government entities being asked to kick in our tax dollars, I'd like more certainty.

I'd like evidence of public demand for a swimming pool and water park, including whether Utahns will really pay $10 to $15 a person or $40 to $60 a family, per visit, and that's with the resident discount.

Local pools now charge $3 to $5.

Will the Ogden School District really close one or both of its two pools as this study assumes?

Has anyone tested that land for hazardous pollutants?

The Weber County RAMP committee says it will support the field house, but only with assurances the study's authors carefully avoid.

Those authors speak of estimates based on assumptions, projections and comparisons and say, "We do not warrant that the estimates will be attained."

So: IF local entities give up millions in property taxes, and IF the thing can be built within budget, and IF there is no competition built in Davis County, and IF no problems come up that nobody's thought of yet, THEN the field house will work, maybe.

Dan Schroeder, the ever-skeptical physics professor at Weber State University who makes a hobby of being a political gadfly, ran the numbers on that stack of IFs.

He agrees the optimistic assumptions do show the project will work, but what about the pessimistic?

His math finds "the field house could produce an annual net income of approximately $800,000 or a net loss of approximately $1.4 million."

John Patterson, Ogden's chief administrative officer, thinks Dan is too pessimistic. He says the feasibility study's optimistic estimates are conservative.

Whichever, they're still estimates.

In one place, the study says attendance estimates are based on average usage per square foot of similar facilities. They didn't find thousands of Utahns who will actually use the place, the study says. They took the size and multiplied by the average.

Building size has little to do with usage, and estimates based on communities in other states assume Utahns act like other people.

Not a safe bet.

You'd think we'd learn.

Feasibility studies 35 years ago said IF we tore down a two-block area of downtown Ogden, and IF we borrowed a zillion dollars, and IF we built a huge mall, then Weber County would be the shopping mecca for a three-state area and Ogden would bloom.

Those studies failed to see that the Ogden City Mall would kill other downtown stores, or that there would be competing malls, or that rumors of gangs would make people shun the parking garage.

The result was a dead mall in a struggling city ringed by big-box stores.

Mayor Matthew Godfrey helped tear down the mall. Why? A feasibility study said an entertainment and housing complex would work there.

It still might. Few of the condos are occupied, and Schroeder notes the predicted property tax revenues of $3.2 million by 2010 for The Junction are really just $1 million.

But five years ago, few thought a national economic disaster was feasible. The Junction is still young, so we shall see.

Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. You can call him at 801-625-4232 or e-mail him at ctrentelman@standard.net. He also blogs at www.standard.net.

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