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Originally published May 29, 2012 at 8:45 PM | Page modified May 30, 2012 at 4:11 PM

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An arena offer even I can't refuse

Maybe we're sick of the debate over pro-sports stadiums, but the proposed Sodo basketball arena is the best deal Seattle has seen in decades.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The pro-basketball arena proposed for Sodo would be the best deal for the public of any sports stadium built around here in nearly 75 years.

And I make this boosterish claim as someone who doesn't much care whether hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen's hoop dream ever comes true.

But not since 1938, when local beer baron Emil Sick put up $350,000 of his own money to build a minor-league baseball field in Rainier Valley, has someone offered Seattle a sweeter deal than Hansen.

I'm all for telling the public-extortion racket that is pro sports to buzz off. We did that with the Sonics, to our everlasting credit.

But seriously, people. Saying no to a screaming deal just for the cranky pleasure of being contrarian is Seattle once again channeling its inner Mayberry.

Just how good is Hansen's offer, historically speaking?

If built as proposed, it would have the most private financing of any major public amenity in Seattle in modern times (the private/public split depends on whether a hockey team comes here or not).

The old Kingdome, built in 1976, was 100 percent paid for by taxpayers and publicly backed bonds. Safeco Field was 73 percent paid by us. Our tab was 70 percent for the football and soccer stadium.

Hansen has flipped this usual calculus upside down. He had no choice. Because we said no so resoundingly to the Sonics, Hansen is asking the public to risk only 25 to 40 percent of the cost — in bonds to be paid off by arena revenues. The lower figure is if just an NBA team, but no NHL team, comes to play here.

Remember Howard Schultz? When he owned the Sonics, he offered to kick in just 8 percent for a new arena at Seattle Center in 2006 (meaning your tab and mine would have been an eye-watering 92 percent.) He then said he was "stunned by the lack of respect" he got for his generosity.

We were right to boo Schultz. Hansen deserves further scrutiny — such as who are his other investors. But his proposal is dramatically different from the usual sports insults taxpayers have been subjected to around here.

Hansen's arena is also in the same ballpark, pardon the pun, as other recent public projects. McCaw Hall, for ballet and opera, was 43 percent publicly financed.

The symphony hall was about a third public money. The only big public amenity I can find that was a better deal for taxpayers was Olympic Sculpture Park, a huge gift to Seattle at only 25 percent public contribution (the rest was from private donations).

The other big criticism is that Hansen is putting his arena in the wrong place. Too much bother to nearby industry (and those industrious Seattle Mariners).

This is strange, because the city zoned this parcel of land precisely for this purpose 12 years ago. It drew it into a small "stadium district," reasoning that if we have more stadiums they might as well go near the ones we already have. Where no people live.

Contrary to all the squawking from the Port of Seattle, sports stadiums actually make decent neighbors for big industry. True, traffic can be a worry (though one that can be solved. Or endured.).

Stadiums are just huge, noisy warehouses. They don't play well next to anything but heavy industry.

What would really be the death knell of the Port is if we allowed somebody to build condos down there. But an arena that holds only a fraction of the crowds of the two ginormous stadiums already there? It will scarcely be noticed.

I voted against Safeco and did my best to torch the Sonics' boondoggles. My mantra was sports megamillionaires at the least should pay a fair share.

Now one is offering just that, for the first time since the long-ago days of beerman Sick. It seems an odd moment for us to go all cranky Mayberry.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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