Few King County Council members appear skeptical of a controversial proposal to spend $180 million in public funding on upgrades at Safeco Field.
The county council held its first public meeting on the proposal Monday before a packed council chambers. The plan, initiated by County Executive Dow Constantine and sponsored by three county council members, would direct about $180 million in hotel/motel tax revenues over the next two decades to the public facilities district that owns Safeco Field, where the Seattle Mariners play. The money would pay for maintenance and improvements to the building.
From the beginning, Council Member Dave Upthegrove has argued that money should go toward affordable housing instead. The Mariners, a profitable private business, should figure out how to fund their own upgrades, Upthegrove argues.
On Monday, only one of Upthegrove’s colleagues sided with him. Others defended the plan or declined to say where they stand.
Council Member Rod Dembowski is siding with Upthegrove—for now. “I’m a ‘no’ vote on the proposal in current form,” Dembowski told The Stranger in an email. “I think there are other competing public needs, including housing and services for homeless youth, that would be short changed by [the current proposal].”
Others asked questions about the proposal during Monday’s meeting, but didn’t oppose it outright.
Council Member Jeanne Kohl-Wells—who sponsored the proposal, indicating she supports it—floated the idea of spending less on Safeco Field, but offered no specifics. “I see signs here that say ‘homes over home runs,’” Kohl-Welles said to a standing room-only crowd in council chambers, including many housing advocates. “I don’t think anybody would deny that it is critical that people have homes… For me, it doesn’t have to be an either/or.”
Along with Kohl-Welles, Council Members Joe McDermott and Pete von Reichbauer are sponsoring the proposal, indicating they’re supportive. Von Reichbauer said that because attendance is down at Major League Baseball games, the team needs help.
That leaves Council Members Larry Gossett, Kathy Lambert, and Claudia Balducci, and Reagan Dunn, who did not make their positions clear Monday. (Dunn was not present at the meeting.)
In an email, Balducci offered no clear position on the issue. She said she didn’t state her position during the meeting because she first wanted to hear from the public. “I am and will be looking for a balance,” she wrote. (I’ll update this post if I hear back from any other council members.)
King County Executive Dow Constantine unveiled the funding proposal in May. Under the plan, the county would direct between $177 million and $190 million toward Safeco Field from 2021 to 2043. Another $2.2 million would go toward Kent’s ShoWare Center. The funding would come from the already existing hotel/motel tax, which is currently paying off the debt acquired to build CenturyLink Field. That debt will be paid off in 2021. What happens come 2021 is the core of the current debate.
State law mandates that beginning in 2021, at least 37.5 percent of the tax revenue must be used for arts and cultural programs, at least 37.5 percent must be used for affordable housing, and the remainder must be used for programs that “promote tourism and attract tourists to the county.” Constantine’s proposal for funding Safeco improvements falls under that tourism category. The law would allow for more than 37.5 percent of the funding to go to either the housing or arts category, county staff confirmed.
The Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District, a seven-member board appointed by the county and state, owns the stadium and oversees the Mariners’ lease to use the facility. The Mariners’ current lease expires at the end of this year, so the team and the PFD have been negotiating over a new lease. Both sides say the deal they’ve agreed to is contingent on getting this county funding, Seattle Weekly reports.
After hiring a consulting firm to assess what it would take to keep the stadium “in a first-class manner,” Mariners leaders claim they will need to spend around $800 million on Safeco Field over the next 25 years. Of that, $385 million will be for infrastructure improvements, like fixes to the retractable roof. Another $250 million will be for ongoing operations and maintenance, and $180 million will be for capital improvements like upgrading food and drink areas. Among the suggestions in the consulting firm’s report is upgrading a pavilion currently used for meetings and conferences into a 175-seat brewpub, creating a new "hall of fame" in one of the stadium's entrances, and adding as many as 900 new spaces to the parking garage.
Coming on the heels of the Seattle City Council’s abrupt reversal on a business tax to fund housing and a count showing more than 12,000 people are experiencing homelessness across King County, the idea of throwing cash at a major league baseball team has galvanized housing advocates.
According to county council staff, the county and PFD have signed an agreement that public money could only fund necessary upgrades, not improvements like the brewpub. But advocates say helping the team with certain upgrades easily frees up other money in their own coffers for the more lavish projects.
At the meeting Monday, Upthegrove and other council members argued the issue with a little classic Seattle-style passive aggression: by asking county staff questions they already knew the answers to.
“What is the bare minimum required by state law that we have to spend on housing and how does that compare to this proposal?” Upthegrove asked.
A staff member clarified the 37.5 percent requirement in the state law.
“So to clarify,” Upthegrove said, “this proposal does spend the bare minimum?”
The staff member said yes.
Upthegrove pointed to Forbes’ estimation that the team is worth $1.4 billion. “Is it possible for the business to be responsible for maintenance and upkeep and still generate wealth?” Upthegrove asked.
Kohl-Welles countered with her own questions. She asked council staff whether it was accurate that the money would go to the Public Facilities District instead of directly to the Mariners. A staffer confirmed that was accurate.
Upthegrove retorted: "Are the Mariners the sole tenant?" (They are.)
Mariners Executive Vice President and General Counsel Fred Rivera told the county council the facility upgrades are “necessary” and “not discretionary work.” Rivera called the spending a "fair allocation of responsibility for a publicly owned asset."
Housing advocates who filled council chambers and an overflow room questioned the county’s priorities.
A consulting firm's report this year found that the county currently needs 14,000 more units of affordable housing at a cost of around $300,000 per unit.
"We have a crisis," said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union. "I don't know what that word means anymore if, when faced with a decision like this, we do the bare minimum."
Puget Sound Sage director Nicole Vallestero Keenan argued that there are few proven public benefits to funding sports teams and stadiums while providing housing generates a clear economic benefit. “When you have an affordable place to live you can put more of your money into food [or] childcare,” Vallestero Keenan said.
“Did we declare a state of emergency around stadium maintenance three years ago?” asked Ethan Phelps-Goodman, founder of Seattle Tech 4 Housing. “Have we been struggling despite that declaration of emergency to find any funds to put toward stadium maintenance? Have we hired multiple rounds of outside consultants to study how other cities best put money toward stadium maintenance? … Why is it so hard to fund some things and so easy to fund others?”
Leaders from tourism agencies in the county, meanwhile, argued some of the tourism money should fund their agencies, too.
After the meeting, Rivera maintained that public money would only fund necessary upgrades, like those to the roof or plumbing. But he defended the other upgrades too. “We’ll have to fund these to make sure we keep up with modern trends in ballparks,” he said.
The county council will meet again to discuss the proposal on August 29 and could vote in early September. You can find county council members' contact information right here.