Arena Politics

Less debate, and more big thinking, is needed

Back Commentary Nov 1, 2011 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

I’ve lost count of just how many times during the past decade we have debated the how and where of building a new arena for the Sacramento Kings. Few doubt the team needs an upgraded home, but the high-pressure tactics of the Kings’ owners — who threatened to leave Sacramento unless they got the deal they wanted — alienated many.

Last April, Mayor Kevin Johnson took control of the conversation. The Kings were toying with moving to Anaheim, and Johnson went directly to the National Basketball Association to argue Sacramento deserved another year to work out a deal. The mayor showed leadership then, and he is showing leadership now with a recently released proposal for financing not simply an arena, but a true sports and entertainment complex in the downtown railyards.

The mayor’s Think Big Sacramento arena committee has gotten the formula right: No new taxes and three roughly equal funding pots to generate the $387 million needed to get the new center built. One third would come from the Kings, the NBA and a private developer; another from patrons of the venue in the form of fees, including ticket surcharges; and the last from the city of Sacramento, based on such sources as the sale of public lands and a hotel tax.

Granted, this is not a definitive financing plan. Instead, it offers city officials a variety of options they can use to create a detailed plan by the end of the year — in time to secure funding sources before the March deadline set by the NBA.

There are still complicated issues to be worked out, prime among them a proposal to lease downtown, city-owned parking spaces to private operators in return for a big, upfront fee to help jump-start the project.

But this plan is a huge step forward from, say 2005, when the Kings wanted to pick up only 20 percent of the tab, with the city left to find the rest. It’s also a huge step forward that the Kings’ owners would neither own nor control the multi-use complex.

One of the most promising parts of the current proposal, to my mind, is the pivotal role for Los Angeles-based AEG, or a similar arena operating company. The company would provide tens of millions of dollars in upfront cash to launch the construction project and be compensated later from center revenues.

An alliance with AEG would bring us not only funding but also a partner experienced in making entertainment complexes work, including the Sprint Center in Kansas City and the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

As in earlier debates, some critics hesitate to move forward on the proposal, many arguing we should not even consider funding something so “frivolous” as a downtown entertainment complex when the recession has forced cutbacks in public services.

That criticism overlooks two important facts: First, these one-time dollars provided by the city could not sustain any of the worthy programs that have faced cuts (police and fire departments, libraries, etc.), so the comparison is really apples to oranges.

Second, and even more important, is what these dollars will generate for the city of Sacramento and the surrounding region: two major job-producing projects — the downtown center and a yet-to-be-determined re-use of the Natomas arena site — projected to employ thousands of workers, for starters.

Now multiply that by the tremendous economic and cultural benefit to the entire region from a first-class downtown entertainment center. Every public and private leader I speak with agrees this is the best shot we’ve had at transforming downtown Sacramento into a destination and the true urban center of our multi-county region.

Now is not the time for yet another debate; now is the time for all of us to think big. Let’s resolve the financing issues and get moving. We need to finally get this job done.

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