A $501 toaster is but one of the signs that something’s out of whack in the deal to pour more public money into our baseball stadium.
It hit me as I was listening this past week to the Seattle Mariners make their pitch for yet more public money: We might as well just tear down Safeco Field and build a new one.
I know, I know — that’s insane. Nobody would offer up such a ludicrous idea. Not even the Mariners (though give them some time).
After all, the ballpark is only 19 years young. Attendance is the highest in 10 years. Why revisit all that sports-welfare nastiness when, instead, we could partner together, the public and the private, to fix up the jewel we have?
That’s the Mariners’ pitch. It’s just that the prices they’re bandying about for the fixup are so off the charts they could practically buy a new baseball stadium.
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Seriously, after reviewing this stadium lease deal, and listening to the Metropolitan King County Council weighing whether to pour another $185 million of public money into it, I think at a minimum it all needs a second opinion. Maybe a few more bids.
When the team and the boosterish public agency that oversees the stadium started negotiating a new lease, they first conducted a study of the ballpark’s needs. What they came up with totals more than $800 million in capital projects, fixups and improvements (the figure does not include regular operation and maintenance).
But in Atlanta they just built a brand-new baseball stadium for less than that: $672 million.
A consultant went through Safeco Field and concluded it needed $385 million in “necessary improvements” (must-have fixes), $190 million in first-class “upgrades” (new brewpubs and premium seats and the like), and an expansion of the parking garage at a cost that last month got pegged as high as $228 million.
Add all that up and we’re at $803 million, to be spent over 23 years. For upgrading a building the King County tax assessor says is worth $521 million.
Now some of that is inflation built into the out-year estimates. I’m not actually suggesting we tear down the park and start over. But I am saying: Something seems a little rich here.
Take the “necessary improvements.” By way of example, one of them is a four-slice toaster for the M’s clubhouse that the consultant priced out at … $501.
It’s just one of thousands of items listed in the report. It’s obviously minor, compared to, say, the $24 million to fix the mammoth retractable roof. But it leapt out because $501 seems a mighty goosed-up price for a toaster.
The report is filled with eyebrow-raising prices. The total cost of new furniture for the park’s 60 luxury suites — also on the must-have fixes list — is $3 million. That works out to 50-grand worth of furniture for each suite. The added parking in the garage pencils out to nearly $100,000 per stall.
Now $501 toasters would normally be no concern of mine, not even if the team wanted to install one at every stadium seat. Except, more than half this $800 million total package comes from public sources (parking and ticket taxes, the public’s share of stadium revenues and the Mariners’ request for a share of the hotel-and-motel tax). The county insists that any tax money would be earmarked only for important stuff like plumbing and HVAC work, not toasters. But that’s an accounting maneuver, designed to make the deal more politically palatable.
Look, the public owns this stadium. So like it or not, we have an interest in helping fix it up. It’s one reason that subsidizing sports billionaires is such an unending sucker’s bet. Once they lure you, you’re on the hook for good.
But at a minimum, this deal’s costs and frills deserve closer vetting. Plus, how the deal came together hasn’t exactly fostered trust. Such as the way the Mariners and the agency overseeing the stadium both conveniently forgot to mention in their news releases that their deal was contingent on a major public subsidy.
And there was the revolving-door way the Mariners used a former top county employee to lobby the county.
A reset is needed. Because it sure feels like it’s the taxpayers who are about to get toasted.