Powerful people were highly annoyed around here for two decades at the agitations of anti-stadium activist Chris Van Dyk. But recent events have proved him right.
Chris Van Dyk was called a “pain in the posterior.” A fun-killer and sports-hater. Dr. No.
A former Seattle sports-talk-radio host named “New York Vinnie” once ranked Van Dyk as No. 1 on his list of People I Want to Blow Up With The Kingdome.
Van Dyk, of Bainbridge Island, is a lobbyist who was the public face of the pompously named activist group “Citizens for More Important Things.” It had one aim: opposing public funding of pro-sports stadiums.
Bashed a former columnist for this newspaper: “As near as I can tell, the only important thing the Citizens for More Important Things have in mind is attaining a level of self-aggrandizement …”
So let it be noted that history has revealed one additional important thing, and it will likely be even more annoying to all who were so vexed by him over the years:
He was right.
After two decades of warring over the fundamental question of whether government should help finance pro-sports enterprises, Seattle now finds itself in the polar-opposite position: The billionaires are fighting to do business with us.
We have one billionaire group offering to rebuild the old KeyArena for $600 million of its own money, including $40 million in transportation fixes. We have another billionaire group offering a privately financed $600 million Sodo arena, plus the sweetener of a $90 million conversion of KeyArena into two music theaters.
Both proposals involve some public subsidy in the form of foregone taxes. But there are no bonds, no borrowing, no 30 years of taxes to pay it all back.
It’s such a remarkable turnabout that Seattle is now seen as a national model for how to beat the pro-sports vampires at their own game, says Neil deMause, author of the book “Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit.”
“What did Seattle do, and how can my city get some of that backbone?” daMause, of New York, wrote in a recent article at Deadspin. It was titled: “Want to Avoid Getting Screwed on Arena Deals? Look to Seattle.”
Van Dyk said he’s out of the stadium game when I reached him Tuesday. But he insisted he isn’t the least bit surprised how it’s turning out.
“We knew the public was being held for ransom,” Van Dyk said. “It wasn’t rocket science. There was just too much money in pro sports — they didn’t need a public bailout.”
It seems clear now that the loss of the Sonics was not due to a need for public investment. He says: “The arguments from the stadium boosters were never based on any economic reality.”
They worked like a mass drug, though. According to research by a Rutgers University professor, sports teams built 186 stadiums in the United States in the past century, costing $53 billion (in 2012 dollars.) Nearly two-thirds of that money was coaxed, cajoled or threatened out of the public.
Van Dyk says the emotional tug of sports is so powerful it took a two-decade struggle to reverse this calculus. It started in 1995, when voters rejected a publicly financed Mariners stadium (only to have it built with tax dollars anyway.) And then in 2006, when voters required that stadium deals must give a return to the public treasury.
“We weren’t telling anyone not to do sports,” Van Dyk says of Citizens for More Important Things (also founded by former City Councilman Nick Licata and Belltown businessman Mark Baerwaldt.) “We were just saying: ‘Pay your own bills.’ Once we got that public vote, it gave the elected officials a little more backbone.”
Van Dyk says he has regret about his role as town naysayer for so long. He was seen as being against everything, a la anti-tax activist Tim Eyman. A state senator once came up to him and said: “Tell me what the hell positive you have ever done.”
“There was an awkward element of truth to that,” he says.
But it was also crucial that some city, somewhere, get all prickly and say “no.” Now that Seattle is being wooed with not one but two privately financed arenas, it exposes the great stadium swindle’s biggest con.
Which is that they only demanded money from us because they knew we were suckers for it.
“I guess you could say we called baloney on all that,” Van Dyk shrugs.
No one puts up a plaque or a statue to calling baloney. But it’s a civic legacy just the same.