County Council hearing examines sports-arena plan
Metropolitan King County Council members on Monday questioned the Arena Review Panel about a proposed NBA and NHL arena in Sodo.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Metropolitan King County Council members had their first shot Monday at publicly asking questions about a proposed new arena for pro basketball and hockey in Sodo.
They weren't shy. Council members peppered members of the Arena Review Panel with inquiries that seemed to reveal their chief concerns about financing an arena with $200 million in taxpayer funds.
Fielding questions for the panel were former Sonics coach Lenny Wilkens, former City and County Council member Jan Drago and Seattle Northwest Securities CEO Maud Daudon. The trio couldn't answer all queries, but did shed some light on the emerging proposal for an 18,000-seat venue.
San Francisco hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen has proposed building a $490 million arena just south of Safeco Field, buying an NBA team, and recruiting an NHL team to play there.
Councilmember Jane Hague asked if the city and county could strike an agreement with Hansen and his investors that would guarantee an NBA team in Seattle for 30 years.
Such agreements are becoming more common, Drago said. Hansen has pledged to keep a team here at least 30 years, Wilkens said.
Councilmember Bob Ferguson asked if such agreements had been tested in court.
"I believe they've held up under duress," Daudon replied. "But I don't know what that duress is."
Hague then wanted to know if the region could support so many teams. Counting the NBA and NHL, as well as the University of Washington football team playing in a new stadium, Councilmember Larry Phillips said the area could have seven major teams. He wondered if any other "midsized major market" supported that many.
"I think this area can support it," Wilkens said.
Phillips said he'd want to see a market analysis.
He also said he was looking for some way to guarantee that taxpayers would not be liable for construction debt if the deal with Hansen fell apart or investors went bankrupt.
There is "probably no ironclad risk-free guarantee," Daudon said. But the city and county have asked to see Hansen's financial plans, she said.
Councilmember Julia Patterson asked why Hansen wanted to build a new arena instead of using KeyArena, renovated for NBA play in 1995.
Daudon said the city talked with Hansen about using KeyArena, or its Lower Queen Anne site for a new arena, but Hansen said transportation was a stumbling block for an arena there.
Sodo has the best transit access in the region, Drago noted, as well as easy access to Interstate 90 and I-5.
Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer said he talked with Mayor Mike McGinn at Friday's Mariners' game. According to von Reichbauer, McGinn said he offered KeyArena to Hansen for free — to no avail.
A McGinn spokesman denied the free offer. "That's not something we ever did," said Aaron Pickus. But the mayor tried to interest Hansen in a long-term lease at KeyArena, Pickus said; it wasn't the investment Hansen wanted to make.
Hague asked about competing proposals that might surface, particularly from the Bellevue area.
Drago said she has been close to a group looking at arena sites, possibly in the Eastside suburbs. "It looks to me," she added, "that the Eastside group is saying, 'Let's look at what happens in Seattle and go from there.' "
There are more questions to come, council members said. Phillips alone sent panel members a list of 49 questions covering a range of issues.
And Patterson suggested what may be the toughest questions for some council members: Is an arena the best use of the county's bonding authority? Would she be able to defend using county debt for a new arena when KeyArena is underutilized? Would issuing public debt for a new arena represent a core function of King County government?
"When I take a vote," she said, "these are some of the questions I'll have to come to terms with."
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org