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Originally published September 11, 2012 at 9:29 PM | Page modified September 12, 2012 at 7:47 PM

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Arena deal has Seattle, Hansen putting 'more skin in the game'

The proposed new Sodo arena would be the best deal for the public of any sports stadium built around here in 75 years. But it's also true that to make the deal better, the city threw more public money into the mix.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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How exactly did they make this new deal for a Sodo arena work? They made it bigger.

"Enlargening the pie" was the term of political art used down at City Hall on Tuesday, where they unveiled a revised deal with investor Chris Hansen to build a $490 million arena for basketball and maybe hockey.

Only the total size of the pie is no longer $490 million. It's $537 million. And the bigger pie now includes more public debt than the previous recipe.

"Yes, what we did is grow the pie," said City Councilman Tim Burgess. "That was to make sure the public gets a slice."

Hmm. This metaphor is making me hungry. So I'll drop it and offer this one caveat to the celebration sweeping Sonics-land: Somehow I doubt that making a megadeal bigger is going to placate critics who feel Seattle has better uses for its money than pro sports.

For me, I'll repeat what I wrote four months ago: The proposed arena would be the best deal for the public of any sports stadium built around here in 75 years.

That's still true today.

I based that grandiose statement on the fact that Hansen's arena would have the largest share of private money for a sports project in Seattle since 1938, when beer baron Emil Sick built a minor-league baseball field in Rainier Valley.

That didn't change Tuesday. But it's also true that to wring some industrial-area road-project money out of Hansen, the city agreed to throw more public money into the mix.

To make the deal better, they said, it had to get bigger.

The city's maximum loan to Hansen under the old deal would have been $120 million. Those bonds were to be repaid entirely by revenue and taxes generated by the new arena.

Now, the city's maximum loan to Hansen could be $145 million, with up to $25 million in bonds helping fund a $40 million side account for transportation improvements in Sodo. The new arena is to pay off those bonds, as well as supplement the roadwork account and kick in $7 million for upgrades to KeyArena at Seattle Center.

Hansen says his arena can handle all this debt. And if it doesn't, he's good for it, personally. Putting his own hide on the line is big news — maybe the first step in repairing the tattered images of pro sports owners around here.

But at the same time, the burdens on the arena — and the ask on the public treasury — just went up.

Burgess explained that many on the council felt it wasn't a proper use of public funds to lend a private guy all this money, then have all the profits stay with him. So they insisted their partnership be more "partnerlike," with some of the arena proceeds going to road work.

But to make that pencil, "He had to put more skin in the game, and so did we," Burgess said. "The result is a better balance for the public."

OK. I do get nervous, though, when politicians start logrolling like this. For example, this new deal has to go back to King County for approval. What ornaments might they now hang on the tree?

At one point during the news conference, as benefits were being hailed along with some higher upfront costs, a lobbyist turned to me and whispered: "And everyone in the city gets a puppy."

That's the peril of logrolling: It's hard to stop. I guess I can't talk. I proposed we revive the waterfront trolley by attaching it to the arena plan. It would only be $10 million or so. You know, while we're at it.

Seriously, the arena plan was a good deal before. It still is. Now they better pass it posthaste before it bloats up anymore.

The bit about the puppies was a joke, obviously. But when we left the presser we heard Hansen had bested it with free beer.

From 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at F.X. McRory's in Pioneer Square, he's buying the entire city a beer to celebrate. For anyone who comes by, the first round's on him.

OK, on second thought, this whole logrolling with zillionaires thing? Maybe we could get used to it.

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

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