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Originally published Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 9:44 PM

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Arena deal sure beats Husky Stadium deal

I'm not here to bash the Husky Stadium project. It's going just fine. But if you compare it to Chris Hansen's NBA arena proposal, it is clearly the riskier of the two.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Imagine the public is asked to go into debt to build a sports stadium. Imagine the institution borrowing a quarter-billion dollars is one of our most cherished, and has been hard-hit by the recession to boot.

Surely there would be eyebrows raised about this. Hearings held, tough questions asked. At least a display of the usual Seattle cranky skepticism?

Only there wasn't. Scarcely anyone appears bothered that this is happening right now — just across town from all the hullabaloo about the proposed basketball arena in Sodo.

I'm talking about the $250 million remodel of Husky Stadium at the University of Washington.

I'm not here to bash that project. It's going just fine, with construction ahead of schedule and the finances, so far, sound.

But if you compare it to Chris Hansen's $490 million NBA arena proposal, it is clearly the riskier of the two.

Did you know the UW is borrowing 80 percent of the construction cost for Husky Stadium, while relying on just 20 percent private donations? The school then plans to use stadium revenues to pay back this debt over the course of 30 years. If it can't, the university is on the hook.

That scheme is almost identical to the one proposed by Hansen. Except he's putting up a heck of a lot more private money than the UW boosters did — at least 60 percent of his arena's cost. Meaning public borrowing only has to cover 40 percent. Plus Hansen has guaranteed that if arena revenues don't cover the public debt payments, he will make up the difference. The UW has no such backstop. Yet it's Hansen's arena that is being dubbed an undue risk on the public treasury.

My newspaper's editorial board, for example, has said there should be zero "public money, credit or risk" in this new arena. It should be 100 percent private. That's a principle I bet is shared by a wide swath of the public.

As someone who argued the Huskies don't even need a new stadium — they could just play at CenturyLink — this principle speaks to me. Add that the NBA is a private business, and it's more tempting still to demand it pay all of its own way (though the arena would be used for many public purposes as well).

But what would Seattle look like if we adopted this as a hard-and-fast litmus test? There would be no new Husky Stadium, as I just outlined. Also no Mariners or Seahawks. No Benaroya or McCaw Halls.

Some readers have told me it is wrong to conflate nonprofits like the ballet or the UW with pro sports. Fair enough. So sticking to private business, would we have the one named Boeing in this state anymore if the public hadn't (painfully) stepped up to subsidize it when it was threatening to leave?

I was against that Boeing bailout — mostly on principle. Now the news mocks my principle on a daily basis with stories of an extraordinary Boeing boom around here, the company adding thousands of local jobs.

Or take the hottest neighborhood in Seattle. This week city leaders were out boasting, again, about how South Lake Union is overflowing with jobs and opportunity. The back story is that this was greased by huge public subsidies — hundreds of millions in street work, power lines and a trolley, that, combined, were dubbed "billionaire welfare" because it benefitted Paul Allen.

Yep. It worked, though.

"I was initially skeptical about some of the grand plans to transform South Lake Union," City Councilman Richard Conlin said. "But the numbers demonstrate that targeted public investments and forward-thinking policy decisions actually did make a tremendous difference in shaping the future of that neighborhood."

Now Hansen's arena is no economic engine like Boeing or Amazon. It's not as culturally significant as the UW. His hurdle is set far higher, as it should be.

But take a look around town, at what we've done before and where we might be if we hadn't. It sure seems like he's cleared it.

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

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