A big cost from Chris Hansen’s arena plan is what taxpayers might need to spend to fix up KeyArena once it’s rendered second tier by a new Sodo venue.
Inside sports business
Last week’s release of the full proposals by two groups offering to renovate KeyArena for NBA and NHL showed that both want some public funds.
The Seattle Partners group — consisting of Anschutz Entertainment Group and Hudson Pacific Properties — has a $521 million renovation proposal with $250 million in public-bond funding attached. The group guarantees all debt servicing, similar to the $200 million in bonds entrepreneur Chris Hansen initially sought for his Sodo District arena project up until last year.
The Oak View Group plans a fully private $564 million KeyArena renovation but seeks tax revenues after construction as well as Port of Seattle funding for an 850-stall parking garage.
And despite the public-money requests, the city remains highly receptive to both KeyArena groups. Even with Hansen’s plan offering all-private funding.
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How can this be? Well, there’s a good reason.
Hansen’s proposal also has serious public dollars attached. Arguably, far more than any bond proposal or parking garage entails.
It has nothing to do with the tax breaks Hansen also would seek after construction. Nor the public street he wants the city to sell to him. Sure, those constitute public funds.
But the biggest, potentially deal-breaking public cost for Hansen’s plan is what taxpayers would need to spend to fix up KeyArena once rendered second tier by a new Sodo venue.
And it wouldn’t be cheap. The city commissioned a comprehensive study on this topic three years ago. The answers it received weren’t pretty.
The final report, published in June 2015 by the AECOM architectural firm, put at least a $100 million price tag on minimal KeyArena upgrades.
More likely, taxpayers would be looking at a $150 million bill to repurpose the venue into something with at least a shot to break even financially, according to AECOM.
Up to now, the arena debate largely has been about financing, transportation and parking, which has overshadowed the fundamental context driving the KeyArena renovation process. We’ve seen focus placed on where developers are from, how much they may or may not want to bring teams here and other questions nobody in charge seems to care about.
That’s because the bottom line for the decision-makers is indeed the bottom line.
City officials have seen the AECOM report; the city’s council paid $150,000 for it to guide them in situations such as this.
So when somebody suggests KeyArena would make a perfect secondary-concert venue and a new Sodo arena would handle bigger shows and major sports, the city knows that already was studied and rejected as not financially viable.
How about turning KeyArena into an aquarium? A waterpark? A technology center? An entertainment plaza with restaurants and bars? What about a low-cost housing complex?
Again, all ruled out two years ago as nonviable.
Out of all scenarios examined, AECOM found only a few that might avoid wasting taxpayer money.
The cheapest was to demolish KeyArena. But that’s now a no-go, with the venue about to achieve historical-landmark status.
Make KeyArena a second-tier concert venue? AECOM estimated that would cost $100 million. And for that price, it projected the venue would lose $350,000 annually the next decade.
KeyArena has averaged a $1 million annual profit the past several years: $1.5 million last year, $805,000 in 2015, $580,000 in 2014 and $1.2 million in 2013.
A slightly better AECOM report option was spending an estimated $150 million to make KeyArena a downsized, split-venue facility separated by an acoustic wall. A 12,000-seat facility would continue to host Storm or Seattle University basketball, and a 3,000-seat adjacent space could simultaneously host smaller non-sports events.
Doing that, the AECOM report states, could generate either an annual $80,000 profit or $160,000 loss, depending on the year. Better, but still an expensive break-even proposition at best.
There was, however, one option in which somebody else might foot the renovation bill and guarantee the city a profit stream: attempt to see whether groups interested in NBA and NHL at KeyArena would rebuild the city’s asset.
Reject those groups, the private funds for renovations vanish. And taxpayers are left to pay for a KeyArena renovation still badly needed and with little hope of it staying profitable.
The Seattle Center Advisory Commission agrees. That 16-member citizen’s panel sat in on AECOM briefings in July 2015 and by October that year wrote the city council with its recommendations.
As expected, it rejected the idea of making KeyArena a second-tier concert venue.
But the commission did suggest further study of the $150 million split-venue option. And the idea of a full-fledged NBA and NHL renovation if somebody was willing to pay for most of it.
Somebody now is willing to pay.
Neither KeyArena proposal asks for public funding remotely close to a net $150 million amount.
And that’s why the city keeps talking with both KeyArena groups. That’s why, for proper context, discussion about better traffic and parking at the Sodo site must be placed in context.
Is Sodo superior for traffic and parking? Sure, right now. And it still might be after all the KeyArena mitigation efforts are implemented.
But would Sodo’s traffic and parking be $150 million better? That’s the question nobody in this debate seems to be asking.
Except, that is, the folks making the decisions.
And unless the public money asks by either KeyArena group start approaching $150 million — in actual cash, not public bonds with guaranteed repayment terms — they’ll continue to have the city’s ear.