King County narrowly approves subsidies for Seattle Mariners

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The Seattle Mariners ballpark will get $135 million from county lodging taxes in a deal that supporters called an investment and critics blasted as corporate welfare.

The King County, Washington, Council approved the plan Monday five months after the Mariners agreed to a 25-year lease with a public facilities district that oversees Safeco Field in Seattle.

The team made its agreement to the lease contingent on the county providing public funds to the facilities district to help with improvements to the 19-year-old stadium. Its current lease expires at the end of the year.

The county had originally proposed $180 million but reduced it $135 million due to fierce criticism from some members of the council, which remained divided and ultimately approved it on a 5-4 vote.

Council supporters called the amount a fair compromise and an investment in a team that brings in millions of dollars and has created thousands of jobs.

County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer described the Mariners as “good partners” and said the funds continued an agreement that began when officials first agreed to build the stadium in 1995.

“Sports bring us together, this team brings us together,” he said at the meeting.

The four council members who voted no had sought to reduce the amount, saying more money should go to tourism promotion and affordable housing programs. They argued that the team could afford to make its own improvements.

“The majority of the King County Council would rather give $135 million in corporate handouts than to adequately support affordable housing, services for homeless youth and small immigrant-owned businesses,” Councilmembers Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Rod Dembowski and Larry Gossett said in a joint statement. “And, the mechanism to do so is by gutting funding for the promotion of tourism – the very industry responsible for generation of those revenues in the first place.”

The funds will come from a 2% tax the county collects from hotels and motels. A county ordinance requires that 37.5% of those proceeds be spent on arts, culture and heritage programs and 37.5% on affordable housing near transit centers and youth homeless programs. The remainder is to be spent on promoting tourism.

The arts and culture share of the taxes also pays for debt service on a $29 million 2016 bond for arts programs while the housing share is paying of an $87 million transit-oriented development bond, according to a county staff report.

The funds for Safeco Field will come from a percentage of the tourism portion of the taxes annually starting in January 2021 and continuing through 2043.

A consultant hired by the Mariners and the public facilities district estimated that $385.5 million of improvements were needed to keep the ballpark in “first class condition” through 2041. In addition, the Marines have proposed another $190 million in upgrades.

In a statement, the Mariners said under the county deal the team will pay for over 80% of the maintenance, operations and improvements over the next 25 years.

“We want to thank members of the County Council who voted to support affordable housing and to help protect an important public asset – Safeco Field,” the Mariners said.

The team said it would move forward in finalizing a “lease that ensures Safeco Field continues to be a first-class ballpark, community asset and economic engine for our region for generations to come.”

The team paid for $126 million of the original $517 million cost of building the movable-roof stadium, according to the website of the Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District. King County issued limited tax general obligation bonds to fund the public share, which were retired in 2011, according to the district.

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