The measure prohibits the funding of sports venues unless the city turns a profit. A Seattle City Council vote is expected within the next month or so on whether to grant entrepreneur Chris Hansen part of Occidental Ave. S. to build his arena.
Backers of a decade-old Seattle bylaw prohibiting the use of city funds to finance sports venues plan a new, strengthened ballot measure to help block a proposed arena in Sodo District.
Members of two dock and railway workers’ unions, a state senator and land-use lawyer Cleveland Stockmeyer held a news conference Monday on a Sodo street corner to announce plans to bolster Initiative 91. The voter-backed measure passed by a whopping 3-to-1 margin in 2006 and prohibits the funding of sports venues unless the city turns a profit.
A city-council vote is expected within the next month or so on whether to grant entrepreneur Chris Hansen part of Occidental Ave. S. to build his arena. The group says it would begin collecting the 20,000 required petition signatures within a couple weeks and push to include the ballot measure in November’s general election if the city grants Hansen’s “street vacation” request.
“This street vacation is a flat-out subsidy,’’ Stockmeyer said. “They’re giving public land to a billionaire.’’
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Hansen has offered to build a public park, pedestrian bridge and new sidewalks in exchange for the street. But opponents say that isn’t enough to satisfy I-91 provisions.
They also say a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) providing Hansen up to $200 million in public-bond funding for an arena if he lands an NBA team also violates the initiative. Hansen has said the funding isn’t a subsidy because he’ll repay it and any interest with taxes collected from arena patrons.
But Stockmeyer on Monday insisted it’s still a subsidy under I-91.
“I guarantee you, if you walk down the street to Bank of America or Chase Bank, they’re not going to give you a loan if they make zero profit,’’ Stockmeyer said. “A zero-profit loan from the city is a huge subsidy.’’
Stockmeyer said shoring up the bylaw is crucial because the city has the ability to alter it at any time. The new measure, if passed, would require a two-thirds super-majority vote by council to change aspects of the bylaw.
Three years ago, Stockmeyer filed an I-91-based lawsuit claiming the MOU between Hansen, the city and King County was illegal. But a King County Superior Court judge dismissed the suit as premature, saying the MOU had yet to be acted upon.
On Monday, Stockmeyer and International Longshore Workers’ Union lawyer Peter Goldman warned that new lawsuits could be forthcoming if the city gives Hansen the street.
Flanked by longshore workers’ union vice-president John Persak, United Transportation Union executive Herb Krohn and State Senator Pramila Jayapal, Goldman said it was “smoke and mirrors’’ to claim Hansen isn’t getting subsidies.
“Some boosters of the Sodo arena, including many elected officials, claim that the arena is the best deal out there in professional sports and does not constitute a taxpayer subsidy because it is self-financing,’’ Goldman said. “But the ‘best deal out there’ is not part of the language of I-91. Initiative 91 says no subsidies — period, end of story.’’
The city conducted a lengthy review of I-91 and its language before signing the MOU in 2012 and concluded the deal did not violate the bylaw.
But Goldman said several provisions of the proposed arena project qualify as subsidies: from the city allowing Hansen to pay down the bonds via tax revenues and letting him forgo property taxes by assuming ownership of the arena and land under it once construction is complete.
He said taxpayers would be stuck paying to maintain the arena as it ages and loses value. He added they also would be stuck paying for KeyArena as it loses money and business to the newly opened Sodo venue.
Railway-union executive Krohn, another of those involved in the dismissed I-91 lawsuits two years ago, said the initiative needs to be strengthened, clarified and reaffirmed “to protect the thousands of middle-class working people whose jobs rely on the Port of Seattle, the Burlington Northern, Union Pacific and AMTRAK rail yards, and the vast manufacturing and industrial businesses in Sodo.’’
He said the group’s goal is “to leave no doubt that the city cannot convey public property or any other public resources to this project without receiving fair market value in return.’’
The city council on Tuesday is to hold the second of three public hearings ahead of a vote on whether to give up Occidental. Hansen needs the street to get his arena plan “shovel ready” in hopes of convincing the NBA to award him an expansion team before the MOU expires in November 2017.