The Seattle Mariners have issued an ultimatum: Give them $180 million in taxpayer money for their 19-year-old stadium, or they won’t sign a long-term lease.
The team’s lease expires at the end of this year, and while the Mariners aren’t immediately going anywhere, they’re threatening to reserve the possibility if public money isn’t handed over to them. The team and the Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District, which oversees the stadium, agreed in May to a term sheet on a 25-year lease extension. But now the team is backing out, saying it will not sign the agreement without King County promising money for upkeep and capital projects.
[A]ccording to emails between representatives from both the PFD and the Mariners obtained by Seattle Weekly through a public-records request, the team was explicit about its position that receiving the $180 million from taxpayers was part of the deal even though it was not specifically spelled out in the language of the lease’s contract. “As confirmed and set forth in prior communications with the PFD’s lease negotiation team, final lease agreement is conditioned on King County’s approval of an allocation of a portion of the county’s lodging tax revenues,” wrote Fred Rivera, Seattle Mariners executive vice president and general counsel, in an early June email to PFD board member Virginia Anderson.
The tax in question is a hotel-motel tax, which currently pays off the debt at the publicly funded Seahawks’ stadium next door. Those payments are scheduled to end in 2020, so the Mariners’ argument is that giving them $180 million won’t require any new taxes, and the tax is already levied mostly on visitors. That’s true only insofar as King County residents care about what happens with the money that’s rightfully theirs; Councilmember Dave Upthegrove has argued for putting that money toward building more affordable housing.
“It would be much more meaningful and more impactful if we could use much or all of the money being proposed for Safeco. I don’t understand why upgrades at Safeco are a higher priority. It’s a missed opportunity.”
The Mariners’ ballpark cost $517 million in 1999 dollars and was paid for mostly with public money. The Mariners do pay rent, but it’s a fraction of what they’re asking for: $55 million in rent payments over the 25-year lease, vs. the $180 million they’re demanding. Majority owner John Stanton is a billionaire.
But, you know the even more fundamental math by this point: Having a sports team is a public good but paying for its stadium is not. The Mariners are thriving in Seattle and will not be leaving town, so really, the only question is whether King County residents want their tax funds to go toward making their county a better place to live, or to ease a billionaire’s expenses.
“There is no reason they would walk away from a business enterprise that is generating so much wealth for them. The threat is nonsense,” Upthegrove said.
“We have a simple choice,” he continued. “We can invest this money in public needs, or we can use it to allow these business owners to make even more money.”