Mariners, Hawks See Green in Sonics' Arena Package

Already 0-for-2 in Olympia, the Sonics again lack legislative and public support as they make their third annual bid for a steroidal, taxpayer-built arena. But they could be making progress. Last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire warmed to the notion of a $500 million multipurpose facility in Renton and also opposed a public vote on funding, telling a news conference the facility is "a whole lot more" than just a sports arena and will benefit the wider community.

That's a boost for Clay Bennett, the wealthy Oklahoman and new Sonics and Storm franchise owner, who, as franchise owners often do, is threatening to move the teams if his demands aren't met. He's wary of a public referendum on his proposed partnership with the public, likely sensing taxpayer unrest similar to 12 years ago when voters turned down a new ballpark for the Mariners.

That ballpark, now Safeco Field, was resurrected in 1995 with a series of new taxes imposed by the Legislature. Now, in the wake of Seattle's approval last year of Initiative 91, which demanded more favorable deals with pro sports teams, the Sonics are hoping for a resurrection, too. Not coincidentally, the new arena bill is modeled on the successful 1995 ballpark legislation.

The taxes that were used to build Safeco and Qwest fields—on restaurant meals, hotel rooms, car rentals, and other purchases—are scheduled to expire at various times in the next decade as the stadiums are paid off. The funding package proposed by Sen. Margarita Prentice would extend those taxes into the 2030s, and could raise as much as $1 billion in new revenue, according to legislative estimates.

Doing so would provide $300 million for the Sonics arena. It would also raise another $120 million: Half would be distributed to arts groups, and half would go to Safeco and Qwest fields to pay for future repairs and improvements. That could help take the Mariners and Hawks off the hook for stadium upkeep.

If the Sonics bill passes, the total public cost for new sports venues the past dozen years would hit a breathtaking $2.1 billion.

Anticipating a share of the Sonics windfall, the state Public Facilities District, which oversees Safeco Field on behalf of taxpayers, has hired a full-time lobbyist to twist arms and push the bill to victory, according to PFD director Kevin Callan. The team itself claims to be keeping a low profile. "We've chosen to stay on the sidelines on this one," says M's spokesperson Rebecca Hale. The Seahawks didn't return calls for comment.

"That future maintenance money is important," says Callan. "The Mariners do a good job maintaining Safeco," he notes. "But down the road, it will need replacement parts as it ages. Our main concern here is to see that the field doesn't become another Kingdome."

As part of their 20-year lease that runs through 2018, the Mariners are obligated to maintain Safeco Field at a high level, for which they pay about $3 million a year, says Callan.

But the Mariners have another source they can tap: a 5 percent tax on Safeco gross ticket revenues. Though the money is primarily used to pay off stadium bonds, the M's can also bill the so-called "excess revenue fund" for reimbursement of any "major" maintenance needs and "unanticipated" capital improvements. (The fund was provided for in the 1995 legislation, and a similar provision could end up in the final version of the Sonics bill.)

so far, public records show, the Mariners have billed the fund for almost $17 million and counting. The projects, since the field opened in 1999, include a south stadium glass enclosure, a high-tech video board, new carpeting and flooring in suites, upgraded security, improved concession areas, and a new audio system, in addition to constant repairs to the settling, cracking stadium concrete. Improvements were ongoing this week as the club put finishing touches on a new luxury mega-suite created by knocking out walls of smaller suites.

It's a controversial issue for some, and has caused differences among the PFD board that oversees Safeco and approves the team's use of the fund.

PFD member Terrence Carroll, a retired judge, is ethically opposed to the fund-dipping, saying the Mariners—who reported an $8 million profit in 2005 off a stadium built mostly by taxpayer money—could afford to foot the improvements themselves. It would be especially egregious, he says, if the Sonics bill passes and the Mariners get even more money to offset their required Safeco maintenance spending.

To receive additional taxpayer funds, Carroll argues, the M's should have to show they need it. "I have not heard that from the Mariners," Carroll says.

Stadium critic Vince Koskela of Taxpayers on Strike says the watchdog PFD is not barking loud enough. "They admit they just do not have the time to deal with the issues they were appointed to handle on the public's behalf," he says. PFD head Callan says the board is all voluntary and he has only a small staff, who are part-time workers like him. "I'm proud of our work, and I think the Mariners are very good tenants," he says.

Koskela, mulling over the prospect of more funding to fix up stadiums that still seem new, says we should expect no less from the Sonics if they get their new multipurpose venue. "Studies the Seattle City Council used for KeyArena showed that when private money is used to build new stadiums, they are remodeled every 12 years," he says. "When public money is used, they are remodeled every six years. Why? Because public money is readily available and so easy to get."

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