We, the people, own Safeco Field, as the Mariners keep reminding us. So what if we just sold it to them — or even gave it to the team for free? The public would get more return, and we would finally be rid of this perennial tug of war over subsidizing pro sports.
On Wednesday, the Metropolitan King County Council is set to decide whether to pour more taxpayer money into Safeco Field, say no to the idea entirely and touch off a fight with a pro-sports franchise, or toss the entire mess to the ballot for a public vote.
That we’re here again, arguing for the umpteenth time in decades about subsidizing a private, for-profit sports franchise, is evidence enough that we need an innovative, different solution.
So here’s one: Let’s sell the stadium instead.
Seriously: Instead of holding a divisive election on whether to put $180 million more into Safeco Field — which seems like a stretch to pass — let’s sell the baseball stadium to the team. It might even be worth it to just give it to them, for free, and be done with this perennial debate.
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Like all my best ideas, I stole this one from someone smarter — Joel Benoliel, a former Costco executive and real-estate developer, and current member of the UW Board of Regents.
“I’m surprised you didn’t come up with the most obvious solution: sell Safeco Field to the Mariners,” Benoliel wrote to me, after one of my earlier columns bemoaning the Mariners’ request for more money. “The investment requirements will never end. It is a high impact public space that will always cost millions in repair and replacement.”
By privatizing the stadium, he argues, all future work would be at the team’s discretion, and it would no longer have to negotiate with the public facilities district or pay rent. It also would own a valuable asset. The public, in turn, would be free from our stadium obligations, hopefully forever.
Benoliel added he was a senior vice president for real estate for Costco and is now a partner in two real-estate companies, “a background that leads me to the idea of privatizing Safeco.”
I bring this up not to pound endlessly on the Mariners. They are doing what sports franchises do. But it’s a warning that it’s probably a matter of time before that other stadium we own, 16-year-old CenturyLink where the Seahawks and Sounders play, also announces that it’s feeling a little decrepit or bereft of beer gardens and needs freshening, courtesy of the taxpayers.
So let’s go ahead and pre-emptively sell the football stadium, too.
After all, the rationale behind the Mariners’ demand for more money is solely that we own the ballpark, so we should help pay to fix it. This sounds reasonable, but the reality is we are no ordinary owners.
“Technically, yes,” Safeco Field is owned by the public, “but that was a bookkeeping dodge designed, as it is with most publicly owned stadiums, to get the team out of having to pay property taxes,” says Neil deMause, author of “Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit.”
Because the Mariners control the revenues, pay below-market rent and have gotten all the profits, “it’s a ‘publicly owned stadium’ solely on paper,” deMause insists.
But some teams do own their stadiums outright, such as the Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox. Tellingly, the Dodgers just spent $150 million on renovations and were awarded the 2020 All-Star Game because of it — all without an infusion of public money.
A source at the public facilities district that owns Safeco Field said selling the stadium would require a change to the state law that created the stadium in the first place.
Given the sweet deal the Mariners now enjoy, the team also might be unwilling to buy its home (Safeco’s current assessed value is $605 million.) Ditto for Paul Allen and the football stadium (assessed value $640 million.)
If nothing else, both teams would have to start paying property taxes — estimated at $5.8 million annually for Safeco and $6.1 million for CenturyLink. Based on those figures, it might be worth it for us to simply give them the stadiums, for free. Amazingly, the public would get more annual return by giving away the buildings than we have by owning them!
In one sense, the Mariners have done us all a civic favor this summer.
They’ve reminded us that with subsidies and pro-sports stadiums, just when you think you’re finally getting out, they pull you back in.
So it’s time to think about selling — getting out for good.