Hundreds of pairs of small feet in cleats charged up and down freshly laid soccer fields in the spring air. Screams of girls cheering their...

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Hundreds of pairs of small feet in cleats charged up and down freshly laid soccer fields in the spring air.

Screams of girls cheering their teammates erupted from the softball diamonds.

All 54 acres of the Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila teemed with life yesterday, the grand opening of the $14 million state-of-the art facility. Starfire is the largest artificial-surface soccer complex in the U.S.

Not a bad outcome for a park that was on the brink of closure three years ago.

“It’s phenomenal,” said Chris Slatt, CEO of Starfire Sports, a nonprofit group he co-founded to encourage youth sports. “This is the culmination of a lot of hard work, vision and risk taking,” he said.

Slatt envisioned a world-class facility open to people of all backgrounds and abilities, supporting free programs for underprivileged kids. Starfire offers classes, tournaments and training programs, some conducted by coaches sent to Tukwila from England’s legendary Manchester United soccer team.

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Yesterday, 96 soccer teams and 62 softball teams from around the Pacific Northwest competed in tournaments at the new complex. Local officials, including King County Executive Ron Sims and Tukwila Mayor Steve Mullet, turned out for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The complex includes four softball fields and eight outdoor soccer fields. A new 80,000-square-foot indoor athletic center also holds the two indoor soccer fields. The building’s huge rolling doors open onto the outdoor fields.

It was clearly a hit with visitors.

“The buildings, the fields — it’s awesome, unbelievable,” said a wide-eyed David Herrera, 22. Herrera, who played soccer on dirt fields as a college student in Mexico, said he looks forward to days when his team in La Liga Hispana gets to use the Starfire fields.

Shrey Bajaj, 11, wandered around the sprawling complex feeling nervous. He belongs to Seattle SCORES, an after-school program designed to improve literacy and academic performance by linking them to soccer programs.

Shrey gets to play soccer only if he does well in school, said his mother, Sandhya Bajaj.

On an index card in the pocket of his soccer shorts, he carried around a poem he had written about the moon. He had to recite the poem on stage before playing soccer on the brand-new indoor soccer field.

The family moved to the area four years ago from India. Playing soccer helped diminish culture shock for Shrey, and the intensive focus on writing improved his English skills. Next year, his brother Uday, 7, will follow in his footsteps.

“Because of this, he adjusted well and he adjusted faster,” his mother said.

The program also made after-school sports affordable for the family. Kids in the SCORES program receive free uniforms and soccer shoes and their playing fees are waived, she said.

Starfire is the only site in North America to have a full-time resident coach from the staff of Manchester United, said Martin Boyes, general manager of Manchester United Merchandising.

“As good as it gets”

To transform Fort Dent Park into the new sports complex, Slatt took out $14 million in loans and negotiated with the city and King County for a 40-year lease on the park. Starfire formed partnerships with corporations, government, sports teams and community organizations.

“This is as good as it gets,” said Joseph Chard, vice president of community relations for the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners and Boeing provided a $100,000 grant to refurbish the softball fields. The Mariners donate to baseball fields in the community every year, but this is the first time they used the funds to support a soccer complex.

Financially, it will still be a challenge to operate the facility. Maintaining it costs more than $500,000 a year, Slatt said. The county was losing $300,000 a year operating the park before.

Slatt’s goal is to break even on operations and repay the $14 million in loans in three to five years. The fields are booked for 29 weekends, and he expects a million visitors this year, including spectators. The complex will earn revenue by advertising on the fields, user fees and corporate partnerships.

Slatt, a former technology entrepreneur, said his dream for the community came from the way sports helped his own two daughters.

“When your kids are young, you hope you might raise the next Mia Hamm,” he said. “As they get older, you realize that their success today is directly related to their experience on the soccer team. Understanding teamwork, how to set goals, what you do when you lose.”

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or