King County Approves Stadium Plan Decision Keeps Mariners In Seattle, Just 8 Days Before Team To Go On Block

The Metropolitan King County Council approved a financing plan for a new $320 million baseball stadium Monday, eight days before the Seattle Mariners’ deadline to put the franchise up for sale.

The 10-3 vote ended weeks of political arm-twisting to keep the Mariners in Seattle by promising to build a retractable-roof stadium.

Council members also were warned the Seattle Seahawks may leave without a multi-million dollar overhaul of the Kingdome, home field of both teams.

Without skyboxes and other improvements to the concrete-roofed stadium, “I do not understand how the NFL can be expected to have a positive view of the Seahawks’ future prospects in Seattle,” NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a letter dated Friday and read at the meeting.

County Executive Gary Locke said he would appoint a task force by the end of the week to review the Seahawks’ situation and would sign the ballpark measure “as soon as it is sent to me.”

“We are now in a position to keep baseball here for our children and grandchildren,” Locke said in a prepared statement.

“All of us can look forward to seeing great baseball played in a real ballpark,” said Sen. Slade Gorton, who helped arrange the sale of the team to a group headed by Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi of Kyoto, Japan, in 1992.

Owners had said they would offer the franchise for sale, probably to out-of-state buyers, without agreement on a stadium plan by Oct. 30.

“The action today completes the incredible story of baseball here in 1995,” Mariners chairman John W. Ellis said. “Looking at the state of baseball at the beginning of this season, who could have written the script for this highlight film of Mariners achievement on the field, incredible fan support and decisive ballpark decision-making?”

Despite potentially cumbersome mechanisms for planning and overseeing construction, Ellis said in a statement that a ballpark might be completed in time for the season opener in 1999.

The team just finished its best season ever, winning the AL West before losing the AL Championship Series to the Cleveland Indians.

The Mariners say they have suffered at least $67 million in losses in the past 3-1/2 years, in large part because of the lack of revenue from skyboxes and luxury seats and the Kingdome’s lack of appeal compared with an open-air ballpark with natural grass.

Immediately after the council vote, which basically implemented a financing package approved by the state Legislature on Oct. 14, a group called Citizens for Leaders with Ethics and Accountability Now challenged the plan in a lawsuit filed in Thurston County Superior Court.

The measure violates constitutional bans on the lending of the state’s credit to private parties and on special legislation that benefits private interests or one part of the state over others, said Shawn Newman, a lawyer and chairman of the group.

The council vote followed testimony from more than five dozen people. Opposing votes were cast by council Chairman Kent Pullen and members Brian Derdowski and Maggi Fimia.

Stephen Kipp, a council spokesman, said front-desk receptionists got about 3,000 calls and individual members generally reported 300 to 500 calls each on the issue. Several members said public response was about evenly divided.

“In the last month we have seen a remarkable coming together of this community behind the Mariners,” Ellis told the council before the vote. “It’s a phenomenon unlike any I have ever experienced in my life.”

Ellis said the legislation was better than a ballot measure, narrowly rejected by county voters last month, which would have financed a stadium mainly through a 0.1 percent increase in the sales tax countywide.

That measure also would have covered $70 million in roof repairs at the Kingdome and $150 million to build luxury skyboxes and make other changes sought by the Seahawks, work the Legislature refused to consider in the latest plan.

Under the plan approved Monday, the Mariners would provide $45 million, a state sales-tax credit would provide about $59 million and a scratch-off state lottery game would net another $48 million over 20 years.

The rest would come from county-wide taxes that required council approval - $9 million a year from a sales-tax surcharge of 0.5 percent on restaurant and bar tabs, $3.5 million from a 2 percent boost in the car rental tax and a 5 percent admissions tax at the new ballpark.

General obligation bonds would be issued for 90 percent of the resulting revenue, including a projected 4 percent annual increase in those receipts.

Under the measure, the stadium must be within the city limits and have “natural grass and a retractable roof or canopy.”

The ordinance specifies that the council can still kill the plan if it would mean dipping into the county’s general fund or would endanger the county’s bond rating.

The Legislature required that the project be governed by a public facilities district board with three members appointed by the governor and four by the county executive.

In addition, the council established a seven-member independent financial review committee, including experts in municipal bonds, investment banking, law, economic forecasting, government finance and construction and engineering, to develop a financial plan for the project.

Those testifying Monday ranged from students, teachers, union leaders and business officials to retirees, tax protesters and a representative of the Libertarian Party.

“If not for the economic reasons, pass this bill for baseball and for us,” said Christian Torrico, speaking for her fellow eighth-graders at Our Lady of Fatima, a Catholic school.

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