Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn signed a $19,500-per-month contract in July with sports-facilities consultant Carl Hirsh to advise the city on the development of a new sports facility that could draw an NBA team back to town.

Share story

Seattle City Council members said Friday they are troubled that Mayor Mike McGinn would hire a consultant to advise the city on the development of a new, state-of-the-art sports facility that could draw an NBA team back to Seattle — without conferring with them.

“I understand vague rumors are one thing. But if they [the Mayor’s Office] felt this was important enough to enter into a contract, I think it would have been appropriate to notify the council at that point,” said Councilmember Richard Conlin.

McGinn agreed to a $19,500-per-month contract in July with a nationally prominent sports-facilities consultant, Carl Hirsh.

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

McGinn is allowed to spend up to $250,000 on contracts before he’s required to notify the council.

The council knew nothing of Hirsh’s hiring, nor of the mayor’s discussions with a potential investment group that has acquired property in the Sodo District, until The Seattle Times in December was about to report that the city was examining an “opportunity” to bring an NBA team to Seattle.

“It would have been nice to know about it sooner, even though I understand they don’t have a firm proposal,” said Councilmember Sally Clark.

McGinn said Friday that his office was approached last year by “a private party interested in making a significant investment to construct a new arena in Seattle.”

The Times also reported in December that the investment group is headed by San Francisco hedge-fund manager Christopher Hansen, who has family ties to Seattle.

McGinn said he assembled an internal city team to evaluate the proposal. He said he and the team reached the conclusion that additional expertise was warranted, including hiring Hirsh. The city also hired a local bond attorney, Hugh Spitzer, in September to advise it on financial and legal issues, including Initiative 91, the 2006 voter-approved initiative that requires the city to earn a return on investment for any sports venue.

The Seattle Times requested copies of the consultants’ contracts under the state Public Records Act in December. McGinn’s office initially said the documents would not be released until February, but changed course and made them available Friday.

“My direction to city staff and our experts is to focus on two goals: 1) Seriously explore and consider the opportunity, and 2) Ensure that taxpayers and the city of Seattle are protected, particularly in light of the public’s direction through I-91,” McGinn said in an emailed statement.

McGinn reiterated that the city has not received a concrete proposal. If it does, he said, “consulting with the City Council will be my first step in moving forward.”

Clark said she appreciated that the contract with Hirsh included protecting the city’s financial interest and evaluating any proposal.

“We know that the Sonics left an empty arena. How do you convince the city to support a new arena given what they know about taxpayers being left holding the mortgage?” Clark asked.

Hirsh worked for former Sonics owner Howard Schultz, when the team was evaluating how to make KeyArena financially profitable. Schultz sold the team in 2006 to Clay Bennett.

Bennett said the city-owned arena lacked the amenities to support an NBA franchise and moved the team to Oklahoma City after failing to secure a new arena here.

“I understand the challenges of KeyArena and the economics of the NBA and NHL,” Hirsh said Friday.

Hirsh, managing partner of Stafford Sports in New Jersey, has advised the San Antonio Spurs through construction of their new arena, the AT&T Center. He worked with the city of Orlando to negotiate an agreement with the Orlando Magic for a new downtown arena and with senior management planning a new Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Hirsh estimated it would cost $400 million to build a new arena, although the NBA’s New Jersey Nets will spend $800 million on one in Brooklyn. A large portion of that was the cost of land, Hirsh said.

He said an arena could be built on as little as 7 to 8 acres, which is about the size of the parcel the Hansen investment group has shown an interest in acquiring. A limited liability corporation headed by Hansen recently purchased 3 acres on the east side of Occidental Avenue South between South Massachusetts and South Holgate streets.

Hirsh pointed to San Antonio as an example of a small-market city making a new arena pencil out financially. The AT&T Center is home to three teams — the Spurs, the WNBA’s Silver Stars and the American Hockey League’s Rampage. It also hosts a three-week rodeo as well as concerts and events.

The building was a partnership between the city and the Spurs, with San Antonio voters approving a visitor’s tax on hotels, motels and rental cars to finance three-fourths of the costs and the team contributing the rest, said Rick Pych, president of business operations for San Antonio Spurs Sports.

Hirsh said many pieces remain to be put together to make a new arena work in Seattle. And he reiterated what the mayor and council members have said, that there is no firm proposal. But he said the developer is very motivated.

“Do I think it will be easy? No. Do I think we can put together a deal? Yes.”

A deal also might help resurrect the political fortunes of McGinn, who in August lost the fight over the waterfront tunnel, which he stridently opposed, and suffered defeat of a proposed $60 vehicle-license fee, which he favored.

Christian Sinderman, a political consultant, said that while the number of people who want professional basketball returned to Seattle is high, the number who think it’s essential is low.

Building a new arena and bringing a team back “is not a political game-changer,” Sinderman said.

But he did acknowledge that if an arena got built under terms favorable to the city, “It could show that this mayor is capable of cutting a deal and delivering.”

Staff researchers Gene Balk and David Turim contributed to this report, which includes information from

The Seattle Times archives.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.