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King County Council to take up $180M for Safeco Field

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

As the King County Council prepares to vote on a controversial proposal to use $180 million of the county’s hotel-motel tax for upgrades to Safeco Field as part of a new 25-year deal with the team, the Regional Policy Committee heard from representatives from the Mariners and the Seahawks, as well as the Seattle Sports Commission about the community impact professional sports have on the area.

There’s been significant pushback by many on the proposal to use the tax dollars for Safeco, including from county councilmember Dave Upthegove, who believes the money would be better spent on affordable housing to help address the region’s homeless crisis.

But Peter Von Reichbauer remains committed to the plan and made this point to start off the meeting.

“If we didn’t have sports, what would we cheer about? And the reality in today’s news, even more importantly, sports is a critically important for our community. It’s important to recognize not just the economic benefit, but the community involvement,” Von Reichbauer said.

Chuck Nelson with the Seattle Sports Commission says first and foremost, it’s about community pride and spirit.

But it’s also about the economic impact.

“The Mariners will draw somewhere between two and half and three million people to come see their games and those tickets are not free,” Nelson said. “The Seahawks will get 70,000 people ten times, so you get the three quarters of a million people there, and the economic impact of that is enormous and it’s not just the ‘millionaire athletes.’ Thousands and thousands of concession workers, people that clean up the stadium, people that park cars — it’s servers, waiters, bus boys, cooks, and the economic impact in the districts in the areas in which the stadiums reside.”

Joe Chard is the Mariner’s Vice President of Corporate Business and Community Relations and was key in setting up Mariner’s Care, the team’s nonprofit foundation, which he says has helped to raise over $25 million for local charities since 1991.

But he says the Mariners also recognize they have to be part of the solution to the homeless crisis.

“That’s why we’ve partnered with organizations like the Mockingbird Society, Compass Housing Alliance, and Mary’s Place to work to help sponsor their events and just get with them to see how we can be part of the solution in this issue,” Chard said. “As you know, just last week, we had the Pearl Jam shows that helped raise around $11 million for the Vitalogy Foundation that helps to work solutions for homelessness.”

The Seahawks detailed the various work the team and the players do to help kids in the community, veterans, and others.

Former Seahawk Jordan Babineaux told the committee about his work with the Union Gospel Mission and his boots on the ground approach to helping with the homeless emergency.

“Every month, I take a group of nine of us, we load up the van, and we go out on these search and rescue missions,” Babineaux said. “We bring resources, food, clothing, hope, and love. And that’s been something that’s been near and dear to me is to help be an answer and a solution to the homelessness problem here in Seattle by partnering with the Union Gospel Mission.”

The big backdrop of this meeting of the Regional Policy Committee, which also includes leaders from Bellevue, Burien and other cities, was the looming battle over whether to give the Mariners the $180 million.

The issue will ultimately be decided by the King County Council, which will discuss it in committee next week.

Right now, three councilmembers have come out against the plan and two for it, including Von Reichbauer. The other four county councilmembers have not indicated whether they were for or against it, but at Wednesday’s Regional Policy meeting councilmember Larry Gossett also appeared to signal his lack of support for the plan, quoting a recent Seattle Times column to suggest the Mariners could handle these costs on their own.

“Two or three dollar increase in tickets, a little less profit from the owners could easily come up with $190 million in 15 or 20 years and that still remains the crux of the issue that we’re going to have to deal with,” Gossett said.

Von Reichbauer responded with a reminder.

“And I’m sure you remember, too, that the facility [Safeco] is not owned by the owners, it’s owned by the Public Facilities District,” Von Reichbauer said.

That’s the argument you can expect to hear more of as the county council starts to take this up next week.

The Mariners say they’re expecting $800 million in stadium fixes over the 25 years of the new lease, most of which they’ll cover on their own.

The $180 million is coming from the hotel-motel tax, some of which already goes toward affordable housing. The argument is that the rest of the money, which can be used for housing or tourism, which includes stadiums, should, for the most part, go to housing given the homeless and affordable housing crisis. County councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Wells, an original sponsor of the proposal who later pulled her support, has suggested using just $25 million of the hotel-motel tax dollars for Safeco.

The Mariners say that’s not something they can support, and while they are not threatening to leave Seattle, they say $25 million is not enough. They could end up signing a short-term 5-year lease if they do not get the $180 million for Safeco and revisit the issue later.

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