December 21, 1996 in Nation/World

M’S Owners Back Off Threat Promise Not To Sell Contingent On Stadium By 1999

Tim Klass Associated Press

The owners of the Seattle Mariners reversed course Friday and said they wouldn’t sell the team if city and county officials quickly agree to their conditions.

U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton secured the promise after several meetings with team officials, who had announced the decision to sell last Saturday because they were frustrated with delays in a $384 million project to build a new ballpark by opening day of the 1999 season.

The Mariners claim they lose about $20 million a season playing in the Kingdome.

“The good news is that it’s possible - and I hope probable - that we will save the Seattle Mariners for Seattle,” Gorton, R-Wash., said Friday after meeting with Mayor Norm Rice, King County Executive Gary Locke, County Council Chairwoman Jane Hague and other elected officials.

The decision to offer the team for sale was sparked in part by a letter from four King County Council members urging a delay in the scheduled 1999 opening of the new ballpark.

All week, team officials maintained the decision to sell was firm.

But Mariners Chairman John Ellis said the team agreed to reconsider after meeting with Gorton.

“The reason we are willing to consider the senator’s request is that the commitments we gave him, if implemented, will put the ballpark project back on a positive track toward a 1999 opening,” he said in a statement.

“Moreover, it will re-establish the original roles and responsibilities of all parties to the agreements. And we believe it will create a level of commitment to construction of a magnificent ballpark that has not existed over the last year.”

Outgoing County Executive Gary Locke sidestepped the question of whether meeting those terms - which include county approval of a $336 million bond package for a stadium and parking garage by Jan. 6 - is fiscally responsible for the county and city. That figure includes about $14 million more in stadium construction bonds than had been originally planned, and $5 million to $6 million more for the parking structure.

“There are a lot of steps yet ahead and a lot of people that have yet to analyze it,” said Locke, who will be unaugurated as governor on Jan. 15. County revenue projections indicate there should be no problem covering the additional bonds, he said.

County Council chairwoman Jane Hague said the panel would begin work Monday on an $8.1 million loan to the Washington State Major League Baseball Public Facilities District for land acquisition and business relocation, a Kingdome lease extension of two years with an option for a third year and an ordinance authorizing a bond issue for the new stadium.

The Mariners previously said they would pay for cost overruns beyond the $384 million budgeted expense. The additional bond money raises that threshhold to about $405 million, “to the best of our understanding at this point,” district spokewoman Kathy Johnson said.

Christopher Vance, chairman of the council’s budget committee, and council member Rob McKenna said all available fiscal analysis showed the user fees and other revenue for the stadium project were more than adequate to support the higher bond level.

“There is absolutely no exposure to our county’s current expense fund, and it will not impact the county’s credit rating,” added council member Ron Sims, nominated to replace Locke as county executive.

The owners believe these terms would give them a chance to make money, Gorton said. He said he had no figures on additional costs to the city and county, nor on additional revenue potential for the Mariners.

Gorton, who played a key role in getting Seattle its American League franchise in 1977, bristled at suggestions the Mariners’ threat to leave was a negotiating ploy.

“They still have what is probably the least favorable lease for a major league ballpark of any that has been negotiated in the last 20 years,” Gorton said.

“The difference between this group and George Steinbrenner is wider than Niagara Falls … This is a group more closely tied with the welfare of this community than any in major league baseball.”

The head of the agency overseeing the stadium project said Friday’s developments raised his hopes for keeping Major League baseball here.

“We have a ballpark site, we have a world-class design and we have made preparations to begin constructing the ballpark in 1997,” said a statement issued by Ken Johnsen, the district’s executive director.

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