In an ongoing effort to secure millions of dollars in public funding for improvements to Safeco Field, representatives for the Seattle Mariners have said their next 25 years in the stadium are contingent on that money. The executive director of the board that oversees Safeco has acknowledged as much, too.
But a new letter from the chair of that board attempts to back away from that narrative.
In a letter to county council members Wednesday, Virginia Anderson, board chair of the Washington State Major League Baseball Public Facilities District (PFD), wrote: “The ‘precondition’ that some portion of available lodging taxes be allocated toward ballpark capital needs before a lease is executed is a condition stated by the Club, not the PFD, and is not included in the Term Sheet signed by both parties.”
The Mariners “have the full obligation to make improvements,” the letter says, and the PFD has “no position” on whether lodging tax revenues should help fund improvements at Safeco.
The “term sheet” refers to the tentative agreement the PFD and Mariners have reached. The Mariners have yet to sign a lease, and the team says it won’t sign one until the county council agrees to give them public funding.
The county council is currently considering a plan to direct about $180 million in lodging tax revenues toward maintenance and upgrades at Safeco Field over the next 20 years. Several council members oppose the deal, saying the money should go to affordable housing instead.
The term sheet states that the team is responsible for the cost of maintenance and improvements and states separately that the PFD will accept lodging tax revenues for stadium improvements.
County Council Member Rod Dembowski, who opposes the $180 million proposal, says the PFD’s letter is evidence the Mariners haven’t been guaranteed any public money. Dembowski argues the team can and should be expected to proceed with their next 25 years at Safeco regardless of public money. “It was an eye opening letter to me,” Dembowski said. While the team has said “the lodging tax is the prerequisite to the next 20 years,” Dembowski said, “the PFD says ‘no no no, there’s a deal in place regardless.’”
The team disputes that characterization and maintains that it won’t sign a two-decade lease without public funding.
“I think what the PFD is doing is respecting the process the county council has to go through,” said Fred Rivera, the Mariners’ executive vice president and general counsel. While the county council may approve or reject using lodging tax money for the stadium, “it’s also clear [members of the PFD board] know this funding from the county is necessary to execute the lease,” Rivera said.
Representatives for the Mariners argue Safeco needs $800 million in improvements, including $385 million for infrastructure like fixes to the retractable roof. Those estimates come from a 2015 analysis from the PFD and the team, which also recommended millions of dollars in upgrades to areas focused on fan experience, like food and drink facilities. Among the suggestions is creating a new 175-seat brewpub in the stadium.
Rivera argues all of these improvements, including both infrastructure fixes and improvements for fans, are necessary to keep the stadium competitive over the next two decades. Because the Mariners don’t own the stadium, he argues partial public funding is fair. In a recent county council meeting, Rivera also said declining attendance at Major League Baseball games affects the team’s bottom line.
“I’m not convinced,” Dembowski told The Stranger. “They haven’t showed us their books.”
The Mariners have said that if they don’t get public funding, they won’t sign a 25-year lease, but they won’t leave Seattle either. Instead, they intend to sign a shorter term deal. The PFD’s letter says there “has been no discussion” of such a deal. “Any such extension would be subject to new negotiations and mutual agreement on terms,” the letter says.
The PFD, which was created by the state legislature and King County Council in 1995, owns Safeco Field and negotiates with the Mariners for the lease that allows them to use the stadium. The current lease expires at the end of this year, so the PFD and Mariners have been negotiating a new lease.
When the two sides announced a new lease agreement earlier this year, King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed directing about $180 million in hotel/motel tax revenues toward the PFD over the next two decades to fund Safeco improvements.
The lodging or hotel/motel tax is currently paying off the debt acquired to build CenturyLink Field, which will be paid off in 2021. What to do with that money is up for debate now—more than two years before it’s actually available—because of the new Mariners lease.
Several county council members say the lodging tax money should be used for affordable housing and homeless services instead. It remains unclear if those council members have the necessary votes. Dembowski says he and two other council members—Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Dave Upthegrove—are currently working on an alternative proposal. The council’s next meeting on the issue is August 29.