After considerable debate, the Metropolitan King County Council voted Wednesday to approve $135 million in funds for future improvements to Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners.
Wednesday’s decision is not final, as it was technically a committee vote and the proposal still needs to be considered in a regular, full county council vote. However, it does seem to provide a path forward for contributions to future Safeco Field maintenance after the issue had been contentiously debated by King County elected officials.
In May, the Mariners announced that they had come to terms on a 25-year lease extension with the Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District (PFD) that outlined future ballpark maintenance and upgrades. To cover some of the funding for future ballpark improvements, King County executive Dow Constantine proposed directing 12 percent of hotel/motel tax revenues to the PFD, with roughly $180 million over time going toward Safeco Field. However, that proposal has proven controversial thus far, as some county officials have called for a greater share of those funds to go toward affordable housing.
A counter proposal to direct $25 million toward future Safeco Field maintenance was also considered, but on Wednesday King County officials instead approved a funding package of $135 million over 25 years. The Mariners had previously warned that scrapping the funds could cause them and the PFD to go back to the drawing board in their long-term lease negotiations, but the team sounded confident after Wednesday’s vote that it could come to an agreement. More from the Seattle Times:
Voting in favor were council members Joe McDermott, Reagan Dunn, Kathy Lambert, Claudia Balducci and Pete von Reichbauer. Council members Larry Gossett, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Dave Upthegrove and Rod Dembowski voted against.
The council also voted 5-4 — along the same lines — to reject a proposal to put the issue on the February 2019 ballot as an advisory measure.
After the meeting, Mariners General Counsel Fred Rivera said that while the money slated for the ballpark was “significantly less” than what the team proposed, he appreciated the council’s efforts.
He said the team would go back and talk with the Public Facilities District that oversees the stadium, but it expects the money will be enough to allow the team to sign a new 25-year lease. The team had never threatened to leave Seattle; instead, executives said the team would sign a short-term lease and then go back to the drawing board to figure out a long-term plan if the public funds were rejected.
The final vote on the proposal is slated for September 17. As it stands, the county council is planning to make an affordable housing allocation that is about $660 million–coming in above the state-ordered minimum of roughly $500 million–while redirecting revenue that was slated for other tourism promotion initiatives toward future Safeco Field improvements.
Under state law, at least 37.5% of lodging tax funds are to go affordable housing, with at least the same portion going toward arts programs, leaving the rest available for tourism promotion (which is where the Safeco Field funding would come from). Some King County officials, however, contended that the county could spend more than the minimum required for affordable housing by diverting funds away from tourism. Historically, lodging tax revenue has been a key funding source for professional sports facilities in King County and is currently being used to pay off construction debt from CenturyLink Field–home to the NFL’s Seahawks and MLS’s Sounders. However, the last of that debt is slated to be paid off in 2020, freeing up $36 million per year for other expenditures starting in 2021.
The 25-year lease extension announced by the Mariners and the PFD called for future Safeco Field upgrades. The two sides commissioned a study by Populous, which found that $385 million over 25 years will be needed for capital improvements to ballpark infrastructure. Additionally, another $160 million is expected to cover upgrades beyond any infrastructure enhancements. Over the course of their new lease agreement, the Mariners would be expected to pay $250 million toward ballpark maintenance, plus $120 million toward a capital expenditure fund.
RELATED STORIES: King County Delays Decision on Safeco Field Funding; Councilmember Withdraws Support of Safeco Field Funding Bill; Safeco Field Lease Extension Could Be Scrapped Without Lodging Tax Funds; King County Official Balks at Safeco Field Proposal; Mariners Sign 25-Year Lease Extension for Safeco Field, Through 2049