Mike Combs has quite a few good memories from his 25 years working for the city of Tacoma. In an exclusive interview with Tacoma Weekly, Combs announced his retirement. He plans to stay active working on some of the same goals he set that remain unfulfilled.
Combs came to work with the city in 1986 as events services manager at Tacoma Dome. He had prior experience in the field of stadium management. He worked at Kingdome as stadium operations director for the Seattle Mariners.
He left that job to go to Anchorage, where he worked at Sullivan Arena for several years. He returned to the Puget Sound area to own and operate a sports bar in Redmond, J. Michael’s Pub and Eatery. “Everyone should own a business at least once,” he said with a laugh. “I learned a lot doing that.”
Before Combs arrived in town, Tacoma Dome had become a major concert venue. There had been problems with crowd control. One fan had set the wooden roof on fire by lighting off a flare during an AC/DC concert. A fan was fatally stabbed during a Judas Priest show, while another died of an overdose during a Motley Crue concert, a show with unruly behavior that inflamed police officers to the point they began putting pressure on Tacoma City Council to ban heavy metal shows.
Combs and his staff realized such behavior at concert was unacceptable and needed to stop.
Back then festival seating was in place, meaning seating was not assigned. Concerts were drawing 30,000 people or more. The configuration was altered, with assigned seating on the floor and a considerable reduction in the overall number of tickets sold per show.
Wackenhut was the security guard contractor. Combs said they were not used to the large crowds of rowdy rockers. He brought in a second firm, Contemporary Services, which was familiar with crowd control tactics needed at large shows. The change in policy on seating and crowd numbers, along with the additional security firm, eliminated the problems at concerts.
THE DOME AND SPORTS
The Tacoma Stars of the Major Indoor Soccer League was the Dome’s main tenant in the 1980s and early 1990s. He worked to improve the relationship between the city and the team’s owners. He noted owners needed someone on the city side familiar with event management. The Stars set league records for attendance. The league eventually disbanded.
Two minor-league hockey teams have called the Dome home: Tacoma Rockets from 1991-95 and Tacoma Sabercats from 1997-2002. Combs said the cavernous venue is ill-suited for hockey. He noted it was built in an era where stadiums were designed to be multi-purpose. He feels it is ideal for concerts, football and consumer shows.
Planning began in the 1990s for an $18 million expansion of Bicentennial Pavilion, the venue adjacent to the Sheraton Hotel. That morphed into what became Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center. Plans changed when it was realized a much bigger facility was needed. This was before Powerpoint presentations, and Combs was lugging large boards with renderings to meetings. “Luckily I had a big enough vehicle to transport them,” he said.
The original plan was to have the facility front on Pacific Avenue, but the light rail line was slated to run there. It was moved a block away to the corner of South 15th and Commerce streets. The city owned much of the land in this section of downtown, which was a rundown skid row.
In 1994 Combs succeeded John Croley as director of public assembly facilities, making him the person in charge of the convention center, Tacoma Dome, Cheney Stadium and city-owned performing arts theaters. Combs credits Croley for encouraging him to push forward with the convention center. “It took years to do, but through John’s prodding I saw it through,” he said.
TIME TO REMODEL
In the mid-90s discussions began about renovating Tacoma Dome and Cheney Stadium. Minor improvements over the years satisfied George Foster, who owned the Tacoma Rainiers. When the Schlegal family purchased the baseball club, they were adamant about a major renovation.
He gives credit to current City Councilmember Spiro Manthou and Rick Talbert, a former member now on Pierce County Council, for lining up the political support to issue bonds to fund the renovation currently underway. He took both on visits to new ballparks around the country.
Combs noted the renovation is a collaboration among the city, county and team, which is obligated to steer stadium revenue to cover some of the costs, as well as the Ben B. Cheney Foundation, which is also raising funds. Combs considering retiring a year ago, but decided to stick around until the renovation is complete in early April. His last day on the job will be April 30.
Combs plans to spend more time on the golf course in retirement. He is on a steering committee for the U.S. Open in 2015 and hopes to remain involved.
Combs plans to stay in the area. He wants to be a consultant who can push for Dome renovation from outside of city government. He wants to push for a major renovation of the Dome, noting it needs far in excess of the $50-60 million price range offered to voters a few years ago.
In 2005 a ballot measure asked for tax revenue for this purpose. It achieved the 60 percent supermajority required, but not the required number of votes. In 2006 it got enough votes for validation, but fell short of 60 percent approval. Combs thinks the next measure should go before voters countywide, given the regional draw for the facility. The county has a higher bonding capacity than the city as well.
Combs is often asked what his favorite Dome event was. He will not narrow it to one, but among the most memorable were the “Walking with Dinosaurs” show, U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1987, the college basketball Women’s Final Four in 1988 and 1989, Goodwill Games in 1990 and the Seattle SuperSonics playing their 1994-95 season in Tacoma. Favorite concerts include Paul McCartney, AC/DC and Billy Joel with Elton John.
Combs said he feels good when he’s in a restaurant or bar downtown a day or two after a big event and the employees talk about how slammed the establishment was before the concert or game. “That is part of why it was built in the first place.”