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Thursday, July 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Doomed park gets a new lease; local soccer gets much-needed kick

Seattle Times staff reporter

As the father of two teenage daughters who have played soccer on youth leagues, Chris Slatt of Burien knows firsthand the frustrations that come with playing the sport in a region sorely lacking in quality fields and facilities.

But when he heard that budget cuts at King County were forcing it to close parks a couple of years ago — including Fort Dent Park in Tukwila near his home — he saw a golden opportunity.

"I wish they'd let me take over one," Slatt, ever the dreamy entrepreneur, recalls telling associates.

The high-tech executive went to government leaders and asked to do just that: to lease Fort Dent Park and turn it into a world-class soccer complex for pros and amateurs alike, using about $10 million in private financing.

He was shocked at their response: by all means.

Today, Starfire Sports, the nonprofit firm Slatt founded with fellow soccer fans Mark Bickham and Steve Beck, is up and running at the 54-acre park near Interstate 405.

Starfire has a 40-year lease to use the grounds. But the organization has given Fort Dent a new lease on life too, transforming it from a quiet suburban park into a bustling soccer village.

What used to be a collection of haggard sports fields and bleachers overgrown with weeds is now a hub of activity on eight artificial turf and grass surfaces, accompanied by a renovated, lidded stadium and an 80,000-square-foot soccer-practice building under construction that will house a restaurant and study rooms.

The complex hosts adult and youth leagues from around King County, as well as professional clubs, all of which pay fees to practice and play. The Seattle Sounders, for example, practice at the park. Starfire also is marketing itself for soccer tournaments.

And the organization has joined with United Kingdom soccer club Manchester United to host summer youth soccer camps using expertise from one of the world's best teams.

"That facility really has done a tremendous amount to put soccer on the map on a national scale," said Brian Schmetzer, the Sounders' head coach and director of coaching for the Seattle Youth Soccer's Emerald City Club.

"I've been around a lot of complexes in the United States and that stadium, that field turf, are exactly the blueprint for what's needed for A-league franchises" in professional soccer.

Professional soccer is not a major spectator sport in the Seattle area — crowds at Sounders games are sparse.

But amateur adult and youth soccer is a huge phenomenon here. Players countywide number more than 40,000.

For them, soccer is a pastime without a home base. Many local leagues hopscotch from park to park, school district to school district, to use whatever athletic fields are available any given month.

"You just had to make do," said Craig Danielson, president of the Eagles Girls Premier Soccer League, made up of kids from South Seattle, Tukwila and Burien. "Running from school to school, there's never any consistency. The Starfire facility has all the amenities to take care of these kids."

The 11 Eagles teams in Danielson's organization practice at Starfire two nights a week, and all of their home games will be played there this year. The field rental cost for the Eagles will be about $10,000 for the year, he said.

When Slatt and his partners started Starfire, observers perhaps could be forgiven for thinking they were out of their minds. If King County and the City of Tukwila, which eventually took legal control of the park, couldn't afford the half-million dollars a year in upkeep at the park, how could a nonprofit?

Starfire plans to pay for maintenance and operations at the park with a combination of user fees and advertising banners purchased by local businesses.

For youth leagues, the cost to use a full grass field for a game is $16 an hour, and it's $60 an hour for use of a turf field. Adult soccer games cost $55 an hour for grass and $95 an hour for turf. The use of lights for nighttime games is $20 an hour.

Already, the complex is in high demand, with practices and games throughout the week, afternoon and evening.

Starfire estimates that 400,000 people will pass through the complex this year, including players and spectators.

"Against most people's better judgment on the outside, we just went forward and did it," Slatt said. "I think it's a model. What we're about is trying to create a very inclusive environment that nobody could afford to maintain and that nobody would step up to keep open."

The City of Tukwila has fielded some complaints about having to pay user fees at a park that is owned by the public. But Starfire and city Parks Director Bruce Fletcher note that one string of grass fields at Starfire is always open to the public for free. A small pond, grassy picnic areas, a children's play zone and a riverside trail also are free to the public.

"This facility would be closed were it not for this partnership," Fletcher said. "It just would have been incredibly sad to lock up the gate and not [have] any kids or seniors use it, to say 'no' because the budget is done."

"It's the way of the future, I think, because I don't see revenues and budgets getting any more flush," Fletcher explained. "Everything is tight. If there are options out there that are a win/win for the community and the residents, then we'll look at it."

Fletcher said the city has received many calls from other cities, private groups and soccer leagues who want to visit the site and learn how they can form similar public-private ventures.

The most visible and longstanding example of this type of partnership can be found on the Eastside, where the Lake Washington Youth Soccer Association has leased and maintained the 60 Acres sports complex in north Redmond since 1982.

The association is in talks with King County officials to upgrade four soccer fields at Marymoor Park in Redmond and add three more, executive director Robert Young said.

Since 1978, the association has pumped nearly $7 million into soccer-field upgrades across the Eastside, he said. Like Starfire, Lake Washington Youth Soccer relies on user fees to cover costs.

"In many ways, we're a mini parks department," Young said. "And we're doing it without tax dollars."

Slatt and the rest of the crew at Starfire are learning how best to run and pay for the complex. They are exploring a variety of ideas to raise money for the complex, including selling naming rights to each section of the park. Already, Northwest Trophy has purchased naming rights to what used to be known as Field No. 2. Rainforest Café and the concrete company Glacier Northwest have backed the complex as sponsors.

The nonprofit expects to retire the $10 million construction debt in the next two or three years.

Slatt takes Starfire's success personally. As a kid, he used to sneak into private tennis clubs to play because he couldn't afford to get in.

His organization offered soccer camp scholarships to 200 kids this summer. It's also working to start an athletics partnership with the YMCA.

The fees and sponsorships are necessary to keep the Fort Dent Park complex accessible, he said.

"We're trying to create a place where everybody's welcome," he said.

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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