Commentary: An untrustworthy Port makes Seattle City Council’s SODO Arena stance look foolish

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We start with a former Super Bowl champion, Russell Wilson, who penned an editorial in the Seattle Times this week in favor of a fully-privately funded arena in the SODO District. He accurately noted the plan was just one street vacation vote away from being “shovel ready.”

One vote. Just one, out of the five city councilmembers who voted against a street vacation last May – in essence, siding with the Port of Seattle.

Well, let’s take a closer look at that Port.

This week, an investigation by the Washington State Auditor’s office revealed the Port of Seattle unlawfully gifted $4.7 million to 642 employees. The draft findings concluded the Port violated two articles of the State Constitution, including the unlawful gifting of public funds.

Say it again: Unlawful gifting of public funds. Our taxpayer money. Approved by Port Commissioners.

Which, by the way, the Port says had nothing to do with the resignation of its CEO Ted Fick this week. THAT was a number of things: From a DUI charge, to a secretive $24,500 raise he gave himself, a sexual harassment complaint, and code of ethics violations, including accepting gifts – such as Mariners tickets. Funny, because just last March, John Creighton of the Port Commission told Seattle Business Magazine, “I’m thrilled with the direction Ted is taking us.” I bet he was!

So, wow. What a week! I don’t always agree with city councilwoman Kshama Sawant, but she did cite a former U.S. Attorney’s description of the Port as “a cesspool of corruption.”

And yet – she and four other council members still supported the Port in that vote against the SODO Arena last May. Great job, team. Really knocked it out of the park there.

“But wait a minute, Aaron,” you say. “Back then, the SODO plan called for $200 million in public money. They were protecting jobs and worried about traffic congestion!” And to you I say – apparently the Port’s anti-arena propaganda worked: Because the $200 million was bond money that would’ve been paid back over time, and the Port publicly vilified the project over and over again – submitting a 44-page document to the city council on the Economic Impacts of the SODO Arena and basically saying “An arena will kill the Port!”

But internal emails (now widely reported here and here) have shown that they were talking out of two sides of their mouth: Publicly stating how vital Terminal 46 was for business, while privately exploring redevelopment options for that terminal, including moving their own headquarters there!

In fact, when Kidder-Matthews, hired by the Port for development assessment services, brought up facility size limitations with the current zoning of Terminal 46, the Port’s Managing Director for Economic Development even suggested giving the city “Big $” for the Tunnel Project in return for rezoning the area.

I mean, that doesn’t sound shady at all: "Let’s scratch the city’s back, and they’ll scratch ours!"

Now, the Port might say that they’ve since dropped those ideas for redevelopment, but first – do you actually believe them? – and second, it’s clear they’ve been aware about – and pessimistic toward – the long term viability of the cargo operation at Terminal 46, with or without another sports venue.

Which, to me at least, means the Port’s public fight against the arena was all a smoke screen. Just lip service. All part of a struggle for power and influence in the future landscape of SODO.

And unfortunately, it worked.

But this fight is far from over. As Russell said this week, the SODO Arena is one vote away from being shovel ready.

So I ask the city council again: Do you side with a completely privately funded arena this time...or a Port accused of illegally using public money, who launched a deceptive anti-arena campaign, and whose leadership is in flux because of highly questionable actions?

I think the answer is pretty clear.

And one more note: The council might say things are different now with the KeyArena RFP. But as Wilson said, KeyArena and SODO can both exist.

The SODO Arena puts “the city in the best possible position to take advantage of (NBA or NHL) franchise opportunities that could become available before any 5-to-7 year KeyArena renovation could be completed," Wilson wrote. "Should the city decide to redevelop KeyArena as a music-only venue, the SODO arena will be ready to welcome the NBA and NHL."

My biggest fear here is letting a KeyArena renovation become the next Sprint Center in Kansas City. 14 years ago, officials insisted that securing a pro sports team was a certainty. It still doesn’t have one, and AEG, which manages the building, is actually against pro sports because, according to this article, it would “clog up the calendar…posing conflicts for touring artists like The Foo Fighters and Rush.”

So if The Key is absolutely essential, everyone can still get their way. The city gets their building renovated and out of the red. The fans get a world-class arena in SODO, built sooner rather than later when the NBA and NHL come calling.

And the Port will simply be the Port - affected by their own missteps and their inevitable future in an evolving landscape much more than some traffic bringing sports fans – and more business – into this city.

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