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Originally published January 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 18, 2008 at 2:05 AM

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Tax dollars for stadium? Wait, this time it's Huskies

The University of Washington wants to renovate and upgrade Husky Stadium with help from some of the same taxes the Seattle Sonics have tried...

Seattle Times staff reporters

The University of Washington wants to renovate and upgrade Husky Stadium with help from some of the same taxes the Seattle Sonics have tried to tap for the past three years.

The university's Board of Regents was briefed Thursday on the proposal to ask the state Legislature for $150 million in public money to renovate the stadium, much of which was built in 1920.

The UW would finance the rest of the $300 million project with donations and revenue from premium seating.

The university is hoping to pull off what the Sonics couldn't — persuade wary lawmakers to subsidize a sports stadium with tax dollars. But former Gov. Dan Evans, who heads the UW committee on the stadium, told regents that he and Scott Woodward, interim athletic director, received a good first reception in Olympia Wednesday.

"I think we're in the ballgame," he said.

Initial reactions in Olympia were positive.

"I'm willing to talk about it with them," said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.

That's significant. For the past three years, Chopp was openly hostile to using public money to pay for a new Sonics arena.

Asked if Husky Stadium is a more sympathetic cause than the Sonics, Chopp said, "Oh God, by light years."

He pointed out that, unlike the Sonics, the UW football program is "not professional, it's not for profit and the players make nothing." And he said the stadium is used for numerous events besides Husky football.

Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Margarita Prentice, who supported the Sonics' proposals, agreed the university's pitch has a much better chance of success.

"They're not even comparable," said Prentice, D-Renton. "I see this as a genuine emergency. It's really dangerous to walk" through some parts of the stadium.

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Even Chris Van Dyk, the activist who has a long history of fighting public financing for sports stadiums, said he did not want to give a "knee-jerk" no to the proposal because he isn't familiar enough with the problems at Husky Stadium.

But he said he will look at the proposal with skepticism and added, "Any teaching organization, any college that can pay the kinds of salaries that they pay to their coaches probably doesn't need any tax subsidies."

The university seeks to extend some of the taxes now being used to pay off debts from Safeco and Qwest fields. Those include taxes on hotels, car rentals and restaurants in King County.

Evans and Woodward said the university would leave it up to legislators to decide which of those taxes would be most appropriate.

Evans said he thinks this is the first time the university has asked for public help to build athletic facilities, except for some seismic work on Edmundson Pavilion.

But it's not unprecedented for universities to do so. In 2006, the Minnesota Legislature voted to pay more than half the cost of a new football stadium at the University of Minnesota.

In October, the University of Washington learned that cost projections for the stadium makeover far exceeded expected revenues. To close that gap, it also scaled back the project from $415 million to $300 million.

The university is stressing that it's asking for a lot less money than the Mariners, Seahawks or Sonics, and a smaller share of public dollars. It says it is seeking a 50-50 split, while the Sonics initially wanted the state to provide roughly 60 percent for a new $500 million arena, and public money made up about 70 percent of Qwest and Safeco Field costs.

The $150 million from the state would essentially rebuild the lower bowl portion of the stadium, addressing safety concerns and bringing it up to modern standards for disabled accessibility.

The $150 million in improvements, to be paid with private dollars, would go toward new premium seating and a club room, lowering the field by 8 feet to improve the view from the lower seats, and new facilities for players and coaches.

The track that's now around the field would be placed elsewhere, perhaps around the soccer field.

There would not be any luxury boxes. That's something the stadium committee decided against.

Many of the regents expressed support for the plan, although Stanley Barer said he thinks it will be a tough sell, especially given that other groups such as the Mariners might want some of those tax dollars.

Craig Cole said he probably was the "hardest sell" among the regents, but he thought it was a good idea.

"I think it's really a people's park for a variety of reasons," he said.

Evans and Woodward noted that about 100 events take place at the stadium each year, including commencement.

Marty Brown, chief lobbyist for Gov. Christine Gregoire, said the governor has not seen a proposal, so it's too soon to say whether she would support it.

The university hopes to get legislative approval this session and begin construction after the 2008 football season.

The UW would request approval for the Huskies to play at Qwest Field in 2009 and return to Husky Stadium in 2010. It hopes the project would be finished before Sound Transit starts work on an underground light-rail station at the stadium.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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