Foon Rhee

When will there be new life for Sleep Train Arena?

Watch Sacramento Kings final game at Sleep Train Arena in less than 15 seconds

Watch the last Sacramento Kings final game at Sleep Train Arena in less than 15 seconds in this timelapse.
Up Next
Watch the last Sacramento Kings final game at Sleep Train Arena in less than 15 seconds in this timelapse.

There aren’t tumbleweeds rolling across the parking lots at Sleep Train Arena yet, but the grass is a sunburned gold, weeds are popping up, and it’s depressingly quiet. If I lived or did business near the former home of the Kings, I might be getting a little antsy.

The arena went dark after Sacramento State’s commencement in December, closing nearly three decades as a central fixture in Natomas. For more than five years – ever since talk of a new downtown arena got serious – everyone has known we need a plan to redevelop Sleep Train (formerly Arco Arena). And while there have been lots of promises, there has been little obvious progress.

But on Wednesday, top Kings executives tried to offer a reassuring message:

In the next few weeks, they will submit a master plan to the city, followed closely by a traffic study and environmental review. They have been visiting other cities to glean ideas for a “transformative” mixed-use redevelopment of the 84-acre arena site, plus 100 adjacent acres, they received from the city as part of the Golden 1 Center deal. They have been talking to potential financial partners to develop the site, which they point out is far bigger than the $1 billion Downtown Commons they are developing around Golden 1.

Kings President Chris Granger told me the team has been “super-aggressive” in the last nine months or so. “There’s a lot that’s going on.”

While the Kings have been busy behind the scenes, they still don’t know what the anchor tenant might be, and aren’t able to predict a precise timetable.

So in the meantime, they’re also trying to figure out a short-term use for Sleep Train that doesn’t compete with Golden 1 or disrupt the long-range plan, “but brings some life and economic vitality to Natomas,” Granger said.

Maybe that will comfort the good folks in Natomas, who seem to have a deep reservoir of patience. But it’s time for City Hall and the Kings to get moving.

Dan Trescott, president of the Natomas Chamber of Commerce, says he remains confident in the redevelopment. “They’re still looking for a suitable replacement – something that’s going to bring some economic impact to the area with sustainable jobs,” he told me. “It doesn’t do anybody any good to sit empty.”

In early 2015, a team executive pledged that the Kings were “fully committed” to a timeline that had “shovels in the ground” by the time Golden 1 opened last October.

That obviously didn’t happen, even though roadblocks have been removed and excuses are running out. The seven-year moratorium on new construction in Natomas was lifted in 2015 after levees were strengthened. In March, the city and team agreed to refinance a 1997 loan to the Kings in a way that makes it easier to redevelop the Sleep Train site. Regional Transit has agreed to consider putting a light-rail station at the site. And the local economy is doing much better.

Granger, who last month unexpectedly announced his exit, and John Rinehart, who is taking over as the team’s president of business operations, said they’ve been working closely on this project so there will be a smooth handoff.

Rinehart said while he wholeheartedly agrees with what Granger told a community meeting in December – that finding the right project is more important than getting one quickly – “it doesn’t help us to sit on the property for a long period of time.”

A lot of people in Natomas were excited about the prospect of a hospital, but they lost that dream to downtown, too, when Kaiser Permanente decided two years ago to put a major medical campus in the railyard. Trescott says while a Kaiser campus would have been “wonderful,” he’d be happy with something like a high-tech continuing education campus. Mayor Darrell Steinberg has suggested a technology park.

City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who represents Natomas and has focused on this issue from the start, says the offers so far don’t meet goals for creating jobs. She says most propose more housing, which Natomas needs far less, with 7,000 single-family lots already available and a slower-than-expected construction market.

“We continue to focus on what will be the best fit, not just for Natomas but for our region,” she told me by email.

One of her constituents, Hugo Gonzalez, says he’d like to see a business or industrial park with high-paying jobs that would help Natomas residents, boost home values – and provide more customers for his family’s restaurant at the nearby Arena Marketplace shopping center.

While Taqueria Rincon Alteno misses the 10 percent bump in business on game nights, he said it’s supported by a loyal clientele built over 13 years and its proximity to the Mexican consulate. Harder hit when Sleep Train closed were bars that relied more on Kings fans, he said.

Gonzalez said he’s willing to wait for the right project, as long as the site doesn’t sit vacant for too long. “It’s going to take a couple of years,” he told me. “I want what’s best for the entire community.”

Trescott, who has owned Aim Mail Center for eight years a couple of miles from Sleep Train, agrees. “Natomas is a very resilient community,” he says. “People have adapted. It’ll happen.”

Sooner or later, something will. But Natomas – home to 100,000 of Sacramento’s 490,000 residents – gets short shrift too often. Sleep Train sits on a prime piece of land with infrastructure already in place, so it would be a shame – if not a crime – if it went to waste.

For Sacramento’s sake, I hope the perseverance of Natomas residents and business owners gets rewarded. But if they don’t see a real project on the horizon sometime soon, even their patience is going to run out.

A look at some of the mid- and postgame excitement during the last Sacramento Kings game at Sleep Train Arena on April 9, 2016.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee

Related stories from Sacramento Bee