Thiel: Let's listen on arena before heckling

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on July 13, 2012 at 9:30 AM

Aside from the fact that numerous arena advocates brought their bellicose ballgame manners to a civic discussion, the informal town hall meeting Tuesday night at North Seattle Community College to talk about Chris Hansen's arena proposal was pleasantly illuminating.

Most illuminating was, judging by the questions asked and the hecklers shushed, how passionate and confused many attendees were, in relatively equal amounts, about the project. But that probably isn't surprising, given how confused was the region's leading editorial voice, the Seattle Times, in denouncing the project Sunday, well ahead of the delivery of all facts and the completion of hearings and negotiations.

If the editorial board can't read the paper's own own reporting, then, while waiting for more reporting, reflect on its own history of support for public-private partnerships, what chance do many citizens have of better understanding? More on that later.

Organized by King County Council member Bob Ferguson (who is running for state attorney general and does not shy from a public platform), and City Council member Mike O'Brien, the meeting drew an SRO crowd of maybe 250 people who passed on a beautiful Seattle summer evening to engage with each other, shout, complain, groan, and wonder aloud intelligently in order to draw out two thoughtful politicians' understanding of the $490 million project.

These sort of town-hall meets go on all the time on many subjects, but it was good to see a little democratic process, however rough and indecisive, break out on the arena project, which is proving to be about a whole lot more than sports.

Ferguson and O'Brien said up front they haven't decided how they will vote, so this was not a pro vs. con debate. It was the first real chance, aside from a maximum two-minute comment period ahead of hearings, for the public to ask questions.

Here's my vote for the best answer to a good question, which was: Why is the city putting up to a public vote this fall the funding of a seawall replacement, which cannot be a more urgent and obvious use of public funds, and not put to a vote a sports arena, which is a luxury?

O'Brien explained that the council has councilmanic bonds it can sell to fund any project it chooses, but permission to increase property taxes that would pay the bond debt must, by ordinance, come from a majority of city voters.

"The arena," he said, "doesn't require new taxes."

The moment of silence that followed the repetition of a five-month-old point was interrupted only by the figurative light bulbs clicking on above the heads of many skeptics the audience. The comparison seemed to resonate. It's just taking awhile. We all learn at different rates, largely depending on the time we can spend to keep up.

What Hansen and supporters fail to fully appreciate is the amount of scar tissue that resides in many longtime residents and their electeds who feel hosed by sports teams from the Kingdome deal to the KeyArena deal to the Safeco Field deal. The football stadium generally gets a pass because its construction won a statewide public vote in 1997. And the Husky Stadium renovation now underway is being done completely with private money and the University of Washington's own bonding capacity.

Hansen's deal amounts to a lease-purchase paid for by investor cash and the taxes generated by the arena that would otherwise not exist. In some ways, it is a loan of the city's bonding capacity whose 30-year debt would be paid back, according to Hansen's calculation, at seven percent interest, well above the current 2.7 percent of the I-91 requirement based on the Treasury bond rate.

The plan is quite crafty. But Hansen is up against decades of mistrust from people who believe craftiness from a rich guy means subterfuge and deception. Hard not to blame them, but that's a little like letting a few bad dates end forever one's pursuit of romance. Skepticism is warranted, but it useful to keep somewhat of an open mind unless a convent or the priesthood is in your future.

Another impression emerged from the meeting's discourse: Hansen's transparency throughout the process has armed his supporters with facts and figures that are not matched by the arena opponents, including the Port of Seattle, which answers with generalized threats unsupported by much documentation. But that information may be forthcoming soon from the port.

What did emerge as a bigger obstacle for Hansen than perhaps he appreciates is the continuing embrace by some of KeyArena as part or all of the solution.

No matter how much he explains the inadequacy of the Key's cramped  loading facilities, the impossibility of fitting in an NHL-sized rink, traffic headaches of the lower Queen Anne neighborhood, and that it was the smallest NBA arena in 2008 by a wide margin, some people can't get past the pleasant hoops-watching experience there.

But the bigger obstacle that received only small articulation is this: Hansen's plan includes a minor spiff-up of the Key for at least three seasons of rental until the new digs are opened.

To new-arena skeptics, the question screams: How is three years not good enough for a permanent solution to bring an NBA team here?

As was written here before, the 1995 Key remodel was short-sighted and inadequate, but cheaper because the old Coliseum footprint was retained under the four concrete roof-support struts. Any new arena on Seattle Center grounds would require complete demolition and at least a doubling of size, all done in what amounts to a public park, for which hundreds of constituencies that use the Center will demand a say.

If you think the process for Hansen's project has been a tooth pull, be prepared to empty the civic mouth for a new arena on Center grounds. Even though the case is easily made against spending on the Key again, it was not apparent to numerous speakers Wednesday, and continues to be part of the conversation because Hansen needs the building for a temp home. To some, it is a contradiction that needs a better explainer. Just like "no new taxes."

Which brings us to the Times editorial, which also drags out the Key as if it were a high school letterman's jacket hoping it still would fit. But the editorial mentions the Key late, as almost a pile-on reason for rejection.

What was so appalling was that the editorial used Hansen's job and residence as a sly smear, as if "San Francisco hedge fund manager" makes him adversarial to the taxpayers' interests by definition, not word and deed.

Hansen's Rainier Valley roots make him a whole lot more "Seattle" -- as if that is a requirement -- than Brooklyn-born Howard Schultz. Yet the Times was so charmed by the coffee-bean baron after his 2000 purchase of the Sonics that for a time they let him write a regular column in the paper on whatever he wanted, an extraordinary platform for a regular news-maker.

In hindsight, Schultz's rhetoric was so self-serving and implausible that reading it now causes me to snort Tully's coffee through my nose.  Examples are many, but check out this one from Sept 22, 2002: " . . . We quickly constructed a strategic plan that would reflect our values, put our fans and the community first and keep the franchise moving in the right direction. Simply put, the coming excitement is all part of the long-term plan. A plan we're committed to. A plan that is working."

Four years later, the plan and direction turned out to be Oklahoma City. The disingenuous Schultz's columns ended well before that, but the Times' dubious history of sniffing out pro sports owners is still with us.

The Times' main, non-personal argument that led to "a resolute 'no thanks,'" in its words, to Hansen's plans, was the obvious one: Traffic in SoDo.

"Mitigating traffic impacts never comes up," it said. Really? That should be described as breaking news, because that topic has occupied many, loudly and publicly, and more will be forthcoming. Arena opponents have yet to deliver substantive facts, just generalities. Why call for rejection before the facts back up the claim?

And why wasn't increased traffic a deal-breaker for siting the baseball park in 1996 next to the Kingdome, putting a second stadium in the way of freight haulers? Because the Times, as with every metropolitan newspaper, wants baseball. For more than a hundred years, the game's daily developments fit perfectly with the dailiness of newspaper publication.

Proof came in the summer of 1995, when the county council's budget committee was considering a routine item about a proposed ballpark measure that was to be on the ballot in September. Testifying on behalf of the ballpark was Frank Blethen, then and now the publisher of the Seattle Times. Watching the proceedings were Seattle Post-Intelligencer publisher J.D. Alexander and Tacoma News Tribune publisher Kelso Gillenwater.

To the best recollection of anyone in local government, it was the first time a metro daily publisher showed up alone for a county committee meeting, much less three at once. Point made. Stadium built, with $380 million in new taxes, even without an approving vote of the public.

Even though the newspaper world has turned upside down, with the P-I dead and the Times and News Tribune in economic peril, baseball remains important to news content and traffic, even coverage of the woebegone Mariners. In February, Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln wrote a strongly worded letter to Mayor Mike Ginn, county exec Dow Constantine and the councils saying flat out the arena "does not work" in SoDo right next to Safeco Field. Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said Hansen will "rue the day" he attempted to build in SoDo.

After being roundly blistered in the media and by fans for being obstructionist, the Mariners have fallen nearly silent on the topic.  My guess is, they have been heard from again.

Objections to the site and the financing of the arena are fair game for editorialists as well as citizens, neighbors and taxpayers. All have stakes in the decision, because a third sports building in SoDo has impacts for the future of the district well beyond traffic and sports.

So it behooves everyone, from the bullying sports fans attempting to shout down opposing speakers Tuesday night, to talk radio hosts to Times editorialists, to spend more time listening and less time deciding and denigrating.

Not since Paul Allen's ill-fated pursuit of the South Lake Union park known as The Commons has a developer in Seattle thrown down private cash, then asked permission for public help to build. For good or ill, Allen's idea was rejected by voters.

The Hansen project is not up for public vote, but the decision by 18 electeds on the city and county councils. It's well worthy of scrutiny, but all the facts aren't in on a plan of unique, complex funding and hard-to-discern impacts.

Whether from sports fans or the Times' ivory tower,  the heckling needs to be saved for LeBron James, if and when he returns to town.

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