Voters in King County rejected a sales tax to build Safeco Field for the Seattle Mariners in 1995. But our state’s political leaders were terrified we’d lose another major league baseball franchise, and this led our Legislature to help out.
Though legislators rejected putting state dollars into the project, they authorized specific hotel-motel, food and car-rental taxes in King County. These were later approved by the county to help the privately owned baseball club erect the magnificent ballpark.
The more than half-billion-dollar project was heavily subsidized by taxpayers and is overseen by a Seattle public facilities district that has state and county-appointed members. Nearly 20 years after the stadium opened, the Mariners are back demanding another $180 million in public funding to make improvements to the ballpark over the next 25 years.
Because the stadium is publicly owned, taxpayers may never fully escape payments for upkeep. Some of the team’s request is legitimate as a result; to the team’s credit it is offering to invest some $650 million of its own.
But the Mariners’ franchise has grown in value by $1 billion since 2009 – to the neighborhood of $1.45 billion, according to estimates published by Forbes magazine in April.
This raises questions about the team’s need for public financial support; other questions arise over our region’s priorities.
The Mariners are a well-heeled franchise that is able to spend more than $20 million a year for select athletes to entertain the public. It’s ticket prices are so high many families are priced out.
For many this tax-subsidy request is merely a Seattle problem. But taxes that support the team’s premier ballpark are paid by those of us who visit, see games, eat or stay over in Seattle.
And at a time our region is reeling with the rise of homelessness, it’s crazy to tie up this amount of dedicated hotel taxes in a stadium renovation.
So far, the King County Council is holding the line against approving the $180 million reinvestment that the Mariners and public facilities district initially negotiated as part of a 25-year lease extension for the team.
The Mariners should go ahead with their Plan B and seek a shorter term deal that postpones any major reckoning for a few more years and also limits taxpayer costs.
Seattle needs to put more resources in the near-term into solving a housing crisis that is pushing outward into communities as far south as Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater.
That said, it’s good that the team and facilities district are looking ahead. This might avert another hostage situation for taxpayers.
We remember being held hostage in 1995 when the Mariners’ owners demanded public funds for a stadium — if we wished to see our team alive in Seattle again.
After 19 years in Safeco, the Mariners should be looking for ways to live with fewer subsidies.