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UW’s $150 million request likely dead

Fri., Jan. 25, 2008, midnight

OLYMPIA – The University of Washington’s controversial request for $150 million in public money for a revamped Husky Stadium may already be dead this year, a top lawmaker said Thursday.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said that not a single one of the House’s 97 other lawmakers has asked him to support the proposal.

“That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?” he said.

Asked if the proposal will not be approved this session, Chopp said: “That’s fair to say.”

A top university official said UW is unfazed.

“We’re going to go forward with it and schedule a hearing in the Senate,” said the vice president of external affairs, Scott Woodward. “We know it’s a very uphill battle, but we have a good story, and it will be told.”

On the other side of the Capitol dome, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said Thursday that the proposal has fans and foes among Senate Democrats. Nobody is disputing the need for renovation and safety upgrades to the stadium, she said, but some lawmakers are concerned about athletics taking priority over academics.

“It’s a little hard to call, but it doesn’t seem to be moving rapidly through the process,” Brown said.

The UW proposal would not tap any statewide tax dollars. Instead, it would use existing King County taxes – a hotel tax, car-rental tax and restaurant tax – that are now paying off the construction bonds for Safeco Field, Qwest Field and the old Kingdome. Those projects are slated to be paid off early. Under UW’s plan, the state would simply leave the taxes in place but steer them to the university to pay half the cost of a $300 million stadium overhaul. The remaining half would come from Husky supporter donations and fees for premium seats.

“It made sense because we, in a big way, contribute to the economic development and tourism trade in Seattle,” said Woodward, who also serves as UW’s interim athletic director.

The university says the stadium, built in 1920, desperately needs extensive work. And it notes that other recent stadium proposals in the Seattle area have sought at least twice as much public money: $372 million of the $517 million cost of Safeco Field; $300 million of the $400 million for Qwest Field; and a would-be $300 million of a proposed $500 million new arena for the SuperSonics.

“We think we are as important a cog in economic development and tourism as Safeco and Qwest fields,” Woodward said.

Some lawmakers, publicly and privately, are already assuring constituents that they’re opposed.

“What are the Huskies going to do if the Legislature says no to their funding request? Threaten to move out of state?” Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said this week. His district includes WSU’s main Pullman campus.

The reactions from Cougars fans have tended to fall into two camps, according to co-founder and publisher Greg Witter.

“Some people, I think, are of the mind that it’s a brazen money grab,” said Witter, who lives near Husky Stadium in Seattle. “Others are saying, ‘If our legislators are in a giving mood, then WSU alums should be lobbying long and loud for a rider to renovate Martin Stadium,’ ” Witter said.

As it happens, WSU is just wrapping up the second of four phases of a $70 million renovation of its stadium. The project is being paid for with student fees, donations from friends and alumni, fees on season tickets and other revenue, said Witter, part of an alumni group helping to raise money for the final phases.

Brown said one of her personal questions about the project is exactly what Witter describes: whether the state would be inviting similar requests from other public colleges.

Chopp has taken heat from Seattle-area newspaper writers this week for saying that he was more open to UW’s idea than he had been to the Sonics’.

He stressed Thursday that he’s not pushing the request himself.

“All I said, at the request of former Gov. (Daniel) Evans, was that I’d take a look at the proposal,” he said. “… We’d consider it. That’s the extent of it.”

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