The owners of the Seattle Mariners announced Saturday they are putting the club up for sale and pulling out of any plans to build the team a new ballpark.
Mariners Chairman and CEO John Ellis said ownership was frustrated with an increasing number of roadblocks in the way of plans to build the $363.5 million retractableroof stadium.
“Our decision is final,” Ellis said.
He cited a Dec. 12 letter from four King County council members to the Public Facilities District suggesting that the construction schedule be re-evaluated.
“That would assure us of a construction start much later in (1997) and a completion in 2000,” Ellis said. “Delay complicates the future for the Mariners, adds to business uncertainty, increases losses to be paid by the owners and postpones the time when financial stability can be achieved….
“We will have no further discussions with King County officials regarding this matter. We will immediately proceed to hire an investment banking firm to seek a buyer for the Mariners.”
Political leaders were caught by surprise.
“I am stunned and disappointed,” County Executive and Gov.-elect Gary Locke said. “I remain firmly committed to helping ensure the new Mariners ballpark is open by 1999.”
Gov. Mike Lowry’s press secretary, Jordan Dey, said the governor would convene a staff meeting Monday to consider ways “to keep major league baseball in the state.”
Ron Sims, nominated earlier Saturday to replace Locke as county executive and one of the council members who signed the letter, said the growth in attendance to 2.7 million fans last year showed the Mariners had begun generating the kind of support that would help keep the club in town regardless of ownership.
“I’m going to work to find new owners and new investors to keep professional baseball in Seattle,” Sims said. “I think we’re going to have to go out and work very hard.”
The council’s bond attorney and experts in the prosecutor’s office believe bonds for the project would be impossible to sell because of two pending state Supreme Court cases and an initiative campaign, he added.
One case challenges the financing plan for the project as a gift of public funds to private interests in violation of the state Constitution. The other seeks to invalidate the financing plan because it ruled out a voter referendum. The initiative campaign would require voter approval before bonds could be issued by the county.
“I don’t have any second thoughts about it (the letter),” Sims said. “We’re just simply saying, ‘Why don’t you let these processes play out?”’
Also signing the letter were council members Pete von Reichbauer, Cynthia Sullivan and Larry Phillips.
A statement issued by the Mariners disputed the lawyers’ assessment and said the letter showed the four council members “intend for the ballpark project to fail.”
The Mariners are owned by a group of local investors who, backed by Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo Co. Ltd. of Japan, bought the team from Jeff Smulyan for $100 million in 1992.
The announcement came just two days before a deadline to conclude difficult negotiations with the Public Facilities District to write a 20-year lease for the team to play in the notyet-constructed ballpark.
The district was ready to consider a lease at its Monday meeting that would have been acceptable to the Mariners, said Executive Director Ken Johnsen. He said district officials were surprised by the sale announcement.
“We had no idea this was a possibility,” he said.
About $15 million to $20 million already has been spent on stadium planning, said district spokeswoman Kathy Johnson.
The Metropolitan King County Council, feeling squeezed by demands that a new separate stadium also be built for the Seattle Seahawks, publicly balked last week at issuing the bonds to finance the stadium without a public advisory vote.
An advisory ballot on issuing $295 million in bonds for the Mariners’ stadium would likely have been scheduled for March and delayed an already tight construction timetable for the park, which the Mariners wanted open for the 1999 season.
Both the Mariners and the Seahawks are eager to get out of the 20-year-old Kingdome.
“The Seattle owners have more than gone the extra mile to assure the club’s future in the Northwest, and the American League shares their disappointment,” AL president Gene Budig said. “What the Mariners must have is a first-rate, fan-friendly ballpark.”
MEMO: Changed in Spokane edition.