Do we give a flying fuck about basketball? Sure, who doesn't love slam-dunkin' Ichiro? A ton of people love basketball, and since the city has subsidized stadiums for the Mariners and the Seahawks (not to mention McCaw Hall, Benaroya Hall, and the Seattle Art Museum), well, fair is fair. We've weighed the criticism, and it comes down to this: Build an arena, and Sonics fans get their team back. Don't build it, and Bellevue will eventually steal away what business KeyArena has left.
This is the right deal, in the right place, at the right time. So build it.
Arena critics warn that taxpayers could be stuck paying the bill on a risky bet. What a load of crap.
"I have studied public-private partnerships for nearly 10 years, and I have not seen this level of security for taxpayers in any other arrangement of this size," concludes Assistant Professor Justin Marlowe of the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs in a report commissioned by the King County Council.
We would only build the arena if an NBA franchise is acquired. ArenaCo is responsible for all cost overruns. And the public contribution is capped. Taxes and rent from the arena itself are guaranteed to cover the annual debt service, with the teams obligated to make up any shortfall, so the city and county would be repaid in full. Again: The city and county are repaid in full. You're not going to pay for the arena unless you spend money at the arena. And, in the unlikely event that Chris Hansen and his billionaire co-owners—Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and two members of the Nordstrom family—find themselves in bankruptcy, the value of the franchise rights alone (worth hundreds of millions of dollars) is more than enough to cover ArenaCo's obligation.
And oh yeah... taxpayers would own the arena and the land it sits on, essentially for lending ArenaCo our bonding capacity. Such a deal!
A Seattle arena would draw tens of thousands of patrons downtown for concerts and games, dozens of times a year. But if Seattle passes this up, you better believe that Eastside developers will move forward with plans to build a facility in Bellevue. So that's our choice: We can have fans spend their money in Seattle—bolstering our businesses, our tax base, and our economy—or we can drive them and their money to the suburbs.
Want proof? A 2005 economic-impact study commissioned by the Seattle Center found that more than 43 percent of KeyArena visitors came from outside King County—more than 80 percent from outside Seattle—and 20 percent of the money they spent was on food, entertainment, and lodging outside the arena.
That's money we want spent in Seattle, not Bellevue, generating the tax revenue necessary to pay for essential public services and infrastructure that benefit even people who will never attend a game.
It's not a matter of needing the Sonics. It's about wanting them.
Nearly every study on the social effects of pro sports teams has recognized that the teams increase a city's quality of life. A major study of Indianapolis residents published in Public Administration Review concluded that sports teams are "clearly critical" to the average person's civic pride, having an effect similar to that of art museums. Another landmark analysis came in 2004 by Gerald Carlino and Edward Coulson at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, which considered the presence of a pro football team along with other quality-of-life factors like good weather and found that people were willing to pay 8 percent more in rent solely to live in a football-team-owning city. Other studies have found similar effects for basketball.
The simple fact is: People like the Sonics. They're fun.
We think Seattle should build fun stuff—especially fun stuff that helps downtown businesses and improves quality of life.
If Seattle's motto wasn't "The City of Crappy Stadium Deals," it probably should have been. Taxpayers picked up 66 percent of the cost of building Safeco Field, 70 percent of the cost of CenturyLink Field, 78 percent of renovating KeyArena, and 100 percent of the cost of the old Kingdome. All were paid for through sales and other taxes, and we're still paying off the Kingdome debt more than a decade after its demolition.
This deal is different.
The city and county contributions are capped at $125 million with an NBA team, $200 million if an NHL team is also acquired, between 25 and 40 percent of the estimated $490 million total cost. That makes for one of the best public-private arena deals in recent memory, and far better than the 80/20 public/private split Clay Bennett demanded before stealing the team away to Oklahoma City and a 100-percent-sales-tax-financed arena.
The site of the arena that kajillionaire investor Chris Hansen is proposing to build is nonnegotiable: Sodo or bust. But if that weren't the case, KeyArena still isn't a viable long-term alternative for hosting NBA and NHL franchises without millions in infrastructure upgrades.
KeyArena's current configuration isn't NHL compatible. On top of that, the City of Seattle is responsible for maintaining KeyArena and making capital improvements, but those improvements have been shelved for years thanks to our million-dollar city budget sinkholes.
Then there's this to consider: Under the terms of the memorandum of understanding, construction on a Sodo facility won't begin until we acquire an NBA team. The plan is to host the team at KeyArena while the new stadium is being built. If KeyArena is our new stadium, our teams would be homeless while upgrades were made. In essence, without KeyArena as a temporary home, the entire deal unravels.
Marine cargo businesses, unions, and other stakeholders at Seattle's busy seaport are rightly concerned about freight mobility through Sodo's already congested streets, but these are problems that already exist, that already require mitigation, and that do not on their own justify blocking the proposed Sonics arena. Some of this traffic is exacerbated by construction of the Highway 99 tunnel and will be alleviated by its completion and related improvements. Certain improvements like the Lander Street Overpass are likely needed with or without a new arena.
Yes, the arena would substantially increase the number of nights when events draw crowds into Sodo, but the resulting traffic would be no worse than what the port already tolerates from Mariners games, and apart from rare overlapping events, no different from what the port tolerated from 1978 to 1985 when the Seahawks, Mariners, and Sonics all played at the Kingdome.
The city needs to mitigate land-use issues and traffic snarls in Sodo regardless, and the council should commit to protecting the neighborhood and the port from further gentrification, but the site's close proximity to rail, downtown, and to three major highways makes it the ideal location for a new arena.
Finally, let's look at the motivations of the people who are out to kill this thing. The Seattle Times editorial board? Those bitches would sacrifice their youngest Blethen if that's what it took to deny Mayor Mike McGinn a win. The Seattle City Council? They're the only people in town who hate McGinn more than the Seattle Times. (Plus, a lot of the council's "arena skeptics"—including Tim Burgess and Sally Clark—think they'd make pretty good mayors themselves and don't want to be running next year against the guy who brought the Sonics back.) If the council rejects this arena, they will have screwed downtown businesses, legions of Sonics fans, and a general public who benefits from a thriving urban core—all for their political grudge.
As for property-tax-subsidized Port of Seattle, it wants what it always wants, which is more money and more leverage. It doesn't gain either by starting negotiations over, say, funding for transportation improvements at the port by saying it absolutely agrees with everything its opponents in this negotiation want.
So take the opposition of all these parties for what it is: self-interest, not civic interest.