Something’s fishy about this Mariners Safeco Field lease renewal.
The issue, for those of you not up-to-date on stadium real estate drama (which, first of all, how dare you), is that the Mariners' 20-year lease at Safeco Field is up on Dec. 31 this year. The team wants to renew and has been negotiating terms with the Public Facilities District (PFD), the organization that oversees capital maintenance on Safeco Field.
The negotiations have raised some eyebrows. Should the county spend $180 million on a sports field when we are in the middle of a homelessness crisis? Safeco Field has necessary maintenance needs and is technically owned by the public, but should taxpayers front those bills when a $1.5 billion private company is the sole renter and pays only $1 million in rent?
King County Executive Dow Constantine thinks the public should foot the bill. He wants to take $184 million from the county’s lodging tax and contribute that to fund these necessary maintenance repairs. But Constantine needs to get a majority of the King County council to buy into his corporate handout first, and four of the members are already against the plan, including Councilmember Dave Upthegrove.
“They have the ability to maintain the ball field while generating tremendous wealth for themselves,” Upthegrove said. “The only thing that will happen if we fund this is that the owners will make $180 million more dollars.”
Constantine needs to get a majority on board for his handout by next Wednesday, when the council plans to take a vote on the measure. Constantine originally had Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles on his team, she was formerly the bill’s co-sponsor, but she backed out once she realized how the lodging tax is supposed to be spent.
Money earned from that tax is meant to benefit the community; 37.5 percent of the tax has to be spent on housing, another 37.5 percent on arts and culture and the rest on tourism. Constantine wants 12 percent to go toward this Safeco Field lease.
What Kohl-Welles realized after her initial support of the measure was that these percentages are just a baseline.
“Those numbers were a minimum. That was important to me,” Kohl-Welles said, “that we could put even more money into affordable housing.”
Though the Mariners have not released their financials it’s hard to believe that this billion-dollar company, one of the wealthiest sports franchises in the world, needs a $180 million handout. Their value is just going to go up. Especially if the Mariners ever win anything. But that’s a whole other can o’ worms.
Within this lease and this context, the Mariners are paying a paltry $1.5 million in rent. That’s up from the original $700,000 price tag from the late 90s and the $1 million they’re paying now.
Upthegrove said that’s a good deal even if you just consider the Mariner’s taxpayer-subsidized office space, let alone a baseball field with a roof that really only benefits grass.
“Take the office space for the team alone,” Councilmember Dembowski questioned Dan Barrett the lead lease negotiator for the PFD. “How many square feet is that?”
Barrett didn’t know.
“If you were to look at that premium office space,” Dembowski continued. “$1.5 million seems a little light.”
Barrett countered that there were other factors at play. After all, the Mariners are responsible for footing a $250 million maintenance bill, rent is supposed to go up 2.3 percent every year of their 25-year lease, there’s revenue sharing and more.
Still, Dembowski looked skeptical.
The new lease being negotiated does not stand on its own without additional funds from the county. That money that the Mariners want from the county (just for maintenance!!) wasn’t outlined in the official term sheet they submitted to the PFD.
Without funding, the Mariners supposedly won’t be able to cover the maintenance costs they have deemed crucial. They’d be about $30 million short without the county’s $184 million lining their coffers.
The Mariners say they will be $30 million short on maintenance costs if the county doesn’t pony up, but they appear to be doing their math without factoring in revenue from the upcoming naming rights for the stadium. Safeco, the insurance company not the field, won’t be the stadium’s sponsor after this year and the new sponsor is likely to infuse a hundred million dollars into the Mariners budget.
What seems like a glaring omission from the lease negotiations is the issue of naming rights. Naming the stadium is like getting a big fat sponsorship check for having a building. When the lease ends so will the current naming rights.
The original sponsorship deal with Safeco was a $40 million deal. Barret says that was back when the Mariners were
bad worse and a deal made now could go for a ballpark figure of around $100 million according to Barrett.
That’s uncertain, however. But only the Mariners will be seeing that money. Maybe it could, who knows, fund some maintenance or something.
Upthegrove thinks the Mariners could pull that funding together.
“The stadium was built at the request of the Mariners for the Mariners and the Mariners are the sole tenant,” Upthegrove said. “It’s a business that can and should pay for its upkeep and it can do so while still generating tremendous wealth fot the owners.”