Inside the "tense" arena compromise: City Council didn't settle, Chris Hansen didn't blink
As it turns out, Chris Hansen isn't too good to be true.
He's simply too good and too true.
We can say this with certainty now because the Seattle City Council tested Hansen's sincerity and willingness to consummate a fair deal in shrewd, unforeseen ways, and Hansen responded by taking a deep breath and committing to his mission on a whole new level.
The result is a revised basketball and hockey arena plan that Councilmember Tim Burgess believes could "fundamentally change" and improve the model of financing sports facilities through a public-private partnership. (Click here to read Lynn Thompson's story, which fully details the new agreement.)
"I think it is fair," Burgess said. "I think Chris thinks it's fair. The agreement was handed to the council on May 18, and not long after, a majority of us realized this isn't going to make it. It was not the balance of private and public benefit that we thought would work for the city. Even though it was one of the best ever, we weren't satisfied with the legal and financial protections."
At that point, sometime in July, council members had a decision to make. They could say no, which would anger the local construction industry as well as Sonics-missing fans, or they could settle and ratify what was already "one of the best ever" deals in comparison to other cities and previous Seattle sports facility deals. Or, if they were feeling ambitious, they could open Door No. 3: Attempt a risky negotiation on a detailed counterproposal, knowing that Hansen could balk, which would make a vocal section of the voting public go ballistic about how they blew it.
In essence, the City Council didn't settle. It wasn't satisfied with "one of the best ever." It wanted an ideal plan for Seattle's complicated situation.
Faced with having to make a significantly stronger financial commitment than he envisioned, Hansen didn't budge. He chose to stay focused on his dream. He continued to negotiate with the kind of honest, transparent and pragmatic approach that has made his arena bid so refreshing.
And that's how this arena deal was consummated, at the intersection of the council's bold and creative effort and the Hansen's strong desire to finish what he had started more than a year ago.
"It was tense from time to time," City Council President Sally Clark said. "But I can also say we got back to collaboration really quickly."
This is a much different deal than the Memorandum of Understanding Hansen worked out with Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine. From the city's perspective, it's an enhanced agreement that goes from being an arena deal to one that attempts to address three vital needs for Seattle.
In the original deal, the city and county simply planned to use its bonding capacity to let a rich private investor borrow $200 million to build a $490 million arena, and it would receive a return on its investment through payments from Hansen using a portion of the tax revenue generated by the new palace. The new deal is more versatile. The arena, a much-needed community asset, would be built. But Hansen is also serving as the catalyst for Sodo traffic mitigation by putting $40 million into a fund that the city hopes (good luck) the Port of Seattle, as well as the Mariners, Seahawks and Sounders FC, will add to in the future. And he's putting $7 million toward trying to figure out how to make KeyArena work, and that doesn't include the millions more he would put into a renovation of the Key to make it a temporary home after he acquires a new NBA team.
Delve into the new financial protections also included, and Hansen has gone to great lengths to make the city and county trust this deal is as close to foolproof as it can get. As I wrote in my Tuesday column, the concern now is whether, with all the risk and responsibility he has assumed, he can create a sustainable business model to build a long-term successful franchise without having ridiculous ticket prices and lulls in competitiveness. It seems even more critical now that Hansen build a relevant team quickly and annually, as well as find an NHL partner and book 200 arena events a year. He needs the arena to operate at its full money-making potential.
Hansen has shown himself to be savvy and forward thinking, and surely, he mulled over how to digest the extra financial strain this renegotiated deal created.
"He told us several times, 'My resources are not unlimited,'" Burgess said of Hansen. "There was a lot of good back and forth between us. Chris Hansen is a calm man. The process was as much a learning experience for him as it has been for us. He made a lot of comments about the government process, but he was great to work with."
The City Council didn't settle. Hansen didn't budge. And the deal didn't die despite a sometimes tense negotiation.
"Everyone did the job they were supposed to do," Councilmember Mike O'Brien said.
It started with McGinn and Constantine and their advisors taking Hansen seriously and hammering out a deal attractive enough that the city and council councils had to look at it with a can-do attitude. It improved with the amendments the Metropolitan King County Council made. And it became unprecedented, and, in my opinion, a no-brainer after the City Council polished it.
"I like to look at it as the mayor sent an alley-oop, and we grabbed it and had a slam dunk," Burgess said.
You know it's a great day for Sonics fans when politicians are throwing out basketball metaphors. It started with Constantine saying in February, "This is not Game 7. This is the tipoff of the first game of the preseason."
Now they're catching lobs and finishing like Blake Griffin.
Too good. Too true.