Connecticut investment banker’s project came at a time when the frustrated NHL had delayed expanding while it waited for Seattle to get its act together.
Inside sports business
If the NHL ever drops a ceremonial puck at a new Sodo District arena, it should invite Tukwila-venue backer Ray Bartoszek to do the honors.
Seriously, the Connecticut investment banker has done more to advance the Sodo cause than he has his own stalled-for-months Tukwila arena project. Delays in that project’s environmental review, Bartoszek’s slowness to repay $63,000 for work done to date and looming deadlines for extending options on his arena land don’t say much about the Tukwila venture’s survival chances too far into 2016.
In the end, Bartoszek’s real contribution to the region’s arena landscape was pressuring Seattle politicians to hasten their Sodo approval process the way no paid NHL consultant could have.
Back in spring 2014, the league wanted a Sodo arena for a future expansion franchise. The NHL had an investor, Victor Coleman, who wanted to own that franchise but was waiting on Sodo-arena proponent Chris Hansen to get a venue approved.
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Nobody seemed in any hurry, frustrating a league that had delayed expanding while waiting for Seattle to get its act together. The NHL needed a boogeyman: an arena threat elsewhere to light a fire under the “Seattle Process” and produce the desired Sodo venue.
Like a gift from the heavens, in waltzed Bartoszek: an accidental NHL rainmaker once before in Glendale, Ariz. In July 2013, the looming threat of Bartoszek moving the then-Phoenix Coyotes to Seattle helped sway a Glendale City Council vote that kept that team there.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman always has wanted teams in both the Phoenix and Seattle markets — not one at the other’s expense. Thanks largely to Bartoszek, the NHL remained in the vast Phoenix metro area, with the now Arizona Coyotes landing a lopsidedly favorable arena deal.
But Bettman still wanted a team in downtown Seattle, preferably ahead of the NBA. And as luck would have it, here was Bartoszek appearing yet again with his uncanny knack for pressuring city governments into doing exactly what the NHL wants.
Bartoszek spent the summer of 2014 seeking alternatives to Hansen’s Sodo project, staying in regular contact with the NHL.
Some have suggested it made sense for Bartoszek to join forces with Coleman.
Or to look at KeyArena, which Bartoszek briefly did — coincidentally, at the exact time (spring 2014) the city paid the AECOM architectural firm $150,000 to begin a study that ultimately found that KeyArena could be made NHL/NBA compliant for $285 million.
But Bartoszek, in an odd twist, instead opted by fall 2014 to join some locals lobbying for a sports development in Tukwila.
Talk about a stroke of luck for the NHL.
It now had its boogeyman. And it somehow avoided Bartoszek setting up an in-city rival KeyArena project that could have distracted Seattle politicians from the preferred Sodo venture.
Bartoszek’s new Tukwila partners were long on ideas, short on cash. But his cash is what made Bartoszek the perfect boogeyman.
In June, The Seattle Times obtained paperwork from Connecticut that referenced a bank transaction indicating Bartoszek’s net worth was likely in the low nine figures.
His accumulated corporate stock from an oil-trading career affords Bartoszek posh surroundings in Greenwich, Conn., and a small stake in the New York Yankees. He lacks the billions to buy an arena and team, but he had spare change to launch an expedited Tukwila arena process without breaking a sweat.
Up to now, his biggest Tukwila contribution has been that startup money and long-distance phone calls. Others have mostly done the on-site legwork. Bartoszek endures the occasional Seattle meeting, but his wife is from here and they enjoy our city.
In the end, Bartoszek never spent big bucks to buy the Tukwila site’s land, only options on it. With serious money soon needed, he’s now musing openly about aborting.
And the NHL probably doesn’t care, because he has served their needs. Last June, when the league announced its expansion process, Bartoszek said he would submit the $10 million application fee.
Even Tukwila Mayor Jim Haggerton and his advisers assumed right on through the league’s July 20 application deadline that Bartoszek would apply, according to public records. Only post-deadline did Bartoszek reveal he hadn’t applied, claiming an unidentified major investor had pulled out weeks earlier.
But Bartoszek letting people think he was applying served the purpose — intended or not — of pressuring Coleman to reach a financial deal with Hansen and submit his own application.
For a while, it seemed Coleman would apply. But days before the NHL’s deadline, Coleman decided he was postponing any financial commitments until Hansen’s arena is approved.
That wasn’t what Bettman and the NHL wanted, but there was little they could do.
Undeterred, they gritted their teeth, kept their mouths mostly shut, and have delayed approving the Las Vegas and Quebec City applications they did receive. They also met in Manhattan with Bartoszek’s representative, Ben Bouma, the day after the deadline.
No one knows what was discussed, but Bartoszek subsequently proclaimed his Tukwila venture alive and well. Every so often, he’ll mention courting new arena investors, leaving the impression that Sodo still has competition.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, where Mayor Ed Murray has cracked the whip all year on a once-stalled environmental review process — unwilling to be viewed as losing future teams to the suburbs — the city finally got things done. Murray’s aggressive timeline was aided by the city postponing any appeals until after the arena’s approval and avoiding public discussion on the surprising KeyArena findings by AECOM.
There also was virtually no arena discussion during the recent municipal election campaign. A reshaped City Council now could soon approve the Sodo project’s final political hurdle — giving up part of Occidental Ave. S. for Hansen’s arena.
Suddenly, a Sodo-based application for NHL expansion seems possible by springtime.
As for perennial runner-up Bartoszek, he’s about done — though he could provide shadow opposition through January if somebody pays to extend those Tukwila land options.
But make no mistake: For the second time in three years, Bartoszek’s presence helped nudge local politicians toward a result the NHL wants. And if you’re the NHL, considering the hundreds of millions at stake in Seattle and Phoenix markets positioning for lucrative new downtown arenas in a few years, you owe him some thanks.
After all, Bettman and company couldn’t have gotten better results had they bought and paid for somebody to do Bartoszek’s work for them.