For once, the pressure’s on the sports moguls to make Seattle a better offer.
Some of the headlines this past week were sure rosy about prospects for a new sports arena in Seattle’s Sodo District.
“Mayor, Hansen celebrate as Seattle arena final EIS released,” said one, at KING 5. “Hansen’s group gets ‘green light’ to build Seattle arena” trumpeted another, at NBC Sports.
But down at City Hall, among the group that would have to actually cut the check for more than a 100 million in taxpayers’ dollars, the light was hardly reading green. At best it’s flashing yellow, and it may have already changed to red.
“This deal’s just not doable, at least as it’s constructed today,” says Tim Burgess, the president of the Seattle City Council. “I wouldn’t say it’s dead. But we are not going to go ahead with this arena without substantial changes. And there are no plans right now for those.”
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Basically, the Sodo arena is dead. Unless someone revives it with bucketloads of fresh money.
The city now wants all or most of the $125 million in bonds it pledged for an arena to be replaced by private financing. For all practical purposes, the city wants out.
Passed two and half years ago, the deal called for the city and King County to front bonds to help a private investor group, headed by Chris Hansen, build the $490 million arena. The main premise was to get an NBA basketball team. The public contribution would be higher if a hockey team came as well.
But the NBA has said it’s probably not coming anytime soon. So the focus has shifted to building a hockey arena first.
Burgess said that idea is dead on arrival at the City Council, absent a big private investment.
“We specifically wrote the idea of a hockey-only or hockey-first arena out of the agreement three years ago,” Burgess said. “We did that because it’s very weak financially. It’s just too risky for the city.”
The reason is that a typical pro hockey team generates about a third less revenue than an NBA team. So city analysts concluded a hockey arena might not be able to cover the city’s bond payments.
“If we’re going to do hockey, there would have to be a substantial lowering, if not elimination, of the public investment,” Burgess said.
That alone could be a fatal blow. But the arena also now has a triple whammy of political problems.
One is that Hansen got in trouble down in California for making an illegal, undisclosed campaign contribution.
“That caused a few of my colleagues to be very concerned about his methods and style,” Burgess said.
Two is that the big money behind the project, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, bolted when he bought the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion. It didn’t escape notice at City Hall that $2 billion could have built the Sodo arena four times over. Yet they needed public help?
And the capper: News hit last month that a different group has proposed building an arena in Tukwila. They said it would be 100 percent privately financed.
You can’t compete with free. Burgess suggested it would be next to impossible now to convince Seattle citizens to help pay for an arena when another group is willing to do one without public money “only 15 minutes away.”
I still think an arena should be in Seattle — next to the other two stadiums, their parking and a light-rail line. Besides, should the NBA ever return, “Tukwila Supersonics” doesn’t exactly get the heart pumping. It sounds like a mall stereo store.
But what’s happening is definitely progress if you had grown weary of the pro-sports subsidy racket.
It used to be that billionaires would pressure cities to give them money, or else no sports for you.
Now, with two groups of one-percenters competing to bring teams to the region, it feels like suddenly the pressure point is the other way around.