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Seattle Times Reporter Scrambling for Credibility After Arena Story Discredited

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“I’m a very intelligent person. I can tell you why this is going on.” - Geoff Baker, The Seattle Times

Robert Sumner/Getty Images

The Sonics arena saga has had no shortage of dramatic plot twists, and on November 12th, the Seattle Times seemed to have identified another game changing event.  According to a report by the Times’ Geoff Baker, M.T. Phoenix, a New Mexico-based investment group, had emerged as a potential partner who was willing and potentially able to bring the Sonics back to a renovated Key Arena.

While the story lacked financial specifics, it clearly implied an investor who was not only interested in the location, but also in funding the construction.  In addition, the original print story (the online version has since been substantially edited) offered unchallenged quotes (since removed) from M.T. Phoenix’s Christopher Brozovich describing KeyArena as the most straightforward path towards the Sonics return.  These statements, which were left uncontested by Geoff Baker, seemed clearly designed to steer readers to the idea that the City of Seattle had made a mistake in committing to Chris Hansen's Sodo Arena, a conclusion that seemed to make a lot of sense if one were to take at face value the article's assumption that investors were ready and willing fund KeyArena renovation without a dime of taxpayer participation.

Baker doubled down on that assertion in a November 12th podcast interview with Sonics Rising's Seattle Sin Bin crew, boasting in Trump-like fashion of his investigative chops and chastising Mayor Ed Murray for "Letting people in the public think that there is nobody willing to pay for the refinance of KeyArena."

"That answered the question people were having about this AECOM report," he stated in regards to the Brozovich e-mail. "'Who is going to finance this KeyArena renovation?' Well, you’ve got someone stepping here up right away who has already offered and nobody is calling them back."

The city, Baker contests, has turned a blind eye to opportunity and Mayor Murray himself was portrayed as negligent in his failure to respond to Brozovich’s outreach.  He seemed incredulous that Murray simply had no interest in this free money and offered scathing criticism of the city's dismissive attitude towards the group he continues to claim "knows hedge fund people," as if this instantly pre-qualifies them for advanced discussions on large-scale municipal project.

Murray, for his part, simply and rightly reminded constituents that the city is currently under a binding contract to support the Sodo Arena site.  The Sodo site has been been vetted over the span of 4 years, surviving multiple challenges by the Port of Seattle, Seattle Mariners and Geoff Baker’s employer, the Seattle Times.  While the Times' edition was published with substantial implication, Murray’s position more clearly stated:

Murray says the city will put out a call for bids if it decides to look at alternative sites and figures out ahead of time what it wants from a relationship with private developers.

"The city initiates these conversations and doesn’t simply respond to companies that contact us,’’ he said.

"To spend a lot of money on an alternative future that may never happen — because this (Hansen) future might happen — I think would be a waste of taxpayers’ money. I think the redevelopment of KeyArena and a bunch of other exciting opportunities around Seattle Center are really, really important. But they’re not going to be easy to finance.

"And the idea that someone just suddenly shows up and out of the goodness of their heart can finance everything that we want I think is really questionable. If that were true, then KeyArena would have been solved years ago.’’

Murray is right about the complexity of the project and deserves credit for speaking that truth publicly.  Having worked on this issue for nearly a decade now, I can say that it is very difficult for casual observers and fans to really appreciate the scope and complexity of this project.  The price tag is enormous, franchise acquisition is incredibly complex and the simple truth is that bringing the NBA or NHL to a city is extremely hard.

It is concerning that the sports business reporter from our region’s largest newspaper lacks an appreciation of this complexity.  Like a casual fan, Baker took a more simplistic approach, offering his readers choices between options without offering any context regarding viability, progress, or the people involved.

In follow-up conversations and Facebook commentary since publication, Baker has insisted that these details are not relevant to his story.  "The story is that there was another group who reached out to the city and the city didn’t call them back," he told Sonics Rising, while blasting the city for refusing to cooperate with his investigations.  In that interview, in fact, he claims credit for vetting the group, stating, "I checked them out originally and they are who they say they are. They are not just a couple of college guys, they are REAL people."

While Geoff may be correct that M.T Phoenix is a company and it is in fact comprised of "real people," everything else about his article and his vetting process has failed to survive basic scrutiny.  Since the article’s release one week ago, KING5 news and Sonics Rising have essentially discredited M.T. Phoenix as a potential investor.  Initial reviews of their website (since edited and finally removed) showed an almost juvenile corporate identity put forward by a company that seemed more appropriate for flipping $200,000 Santa Fe starter homes than engaging in a real discussion around a major infrastructure project with the Mayor of a booming metropolis like Seattle.  The initial e-mail, which Baker showcased as a "smoking gun" to demonstrate the mayor's negligent lack of responsiveness, was sent from a Yahoo account and of such poor quality that any casual reader would understand its base illegitimacy.  Quite simply, there is no reasonable way that an observer could read THIS LETTER or view THIS PICTURE and come to the conclusion that a city dealing with crushing income inequality, a crisis of housing affordability, and traffic and transportation should set aside time to hold further discussions with Mr. Brozovich any more than it should invite professional rabble-rouser and government chastiser Alex Zimmerman to lead public debate at city hall.

Quite simply, the e-mail from Brozovich was easily identifiable as a non-starter to anyone who took the time to review it, except apparently Geoff Baker, who instead packaged it nicely, implied that it was viable and presented it to his readers as a legitimate option.

There is concern that Baker’s actions were more than an innocent mistake, but are, in fact, part of a broader effort to discredit the Sodo arena and pressure Seattle City Council members to delay approval of the Occidental Avenue street vacation, despite the fact that this delay could cost Seattle their opportunity to acquire an NHL team.

Consider that:

  • On November 13th - the day after Baker's article - his employer first released a push poll asking readers which arena option they preferred, the Sodo arena, described as bogged down by controversy and lacking momentum or a KeyArena renovation which was implied to be free of charge, less controversial and paid for by an investment group such as M.T. Phoenix.
  • On November 15th the Port of Seattle reiterated their opposition to the Sodo arena, announcing that the Port of Tacoma and State Transportation Chair had joined their call to slow down the process and delay the street vacation process for Occidental Avenue.

What should be obvious here is that the release of information regarding M.T. Phoenix was a part of a deliberate media strategy intended to provide a false option and weaken support of the Sodo Arena at a critical moment.  Baker either willingly conspired with the Port of Seattle or was simply duped into a disingenuous story, providing the red herring necessary for people to reconsider their support of Sodo in favor of a newer, fresher option that seemed strong in comparison only because no serious questions about its viability had been asked.

Baker should know better because he admits to understanding how important the Occidental Ave street vacation is to the Sodo process.  In response to a question about the NHL's decision to delay expansion decisions until next year, Geoff does not hedge his bets or mince his words.

If you were to ask me my opinion on it, based on everything I've seen and heard, there is no good reason for the league to be stalling on expansion to either Quebec or Vegas at this point ... If you ask me the truth, the reason the NHL is waiting around is for the Seattle situation. I think they want to see whether or not they are going to get this street vacation, and it makes perfect sense. That would be why Ed Murray is trying to rush to get this thing done by the end of the year, because the NHL has delayed their expansion process and, if they delay it until January or February of next year, they could know whether the street vacation goes through. Once that happens, I think that would be enough for the NHL to say "yes, there is going to be an arena come here." You're going to have all kinds of challenges and such, but once a mechanism is approved, you really can start construction; once you get a master use permit, that's really a very good sign. Very rarely, are you going to see a project torpedoed from appeals. Once you get shovels in the ground, it's pretty hard to stop something like that.

Baker is correct in stating that the alley vacation is a critical step for the Sodo project and that makes the timing of his M.T. Phoenix revelation all the more circumspect.  Virtually everybody involved in the project, as well as sources within both the NHL and NBA, agree with his assessment that the street vacation poses the last significant hurdle to an arena actually being built on the Sodo site.  While some additional process would be required in regards to funding or permit details, the street vacation, along with consistent reports of non-impact at every step of the vetting process, would virtually eliminate the Port of Seattle's ability to continue with their 4 year long, taxpayer-funded opposition to the project.

Geoff is not the only person aware of the fact that Occidental Avenue street vacation poses the last potential obstacle in the eyes of the NBA and NHL.  Arena opponents are desperate to delay this process, knowing that NHL has already extended their deadlines on multiple occasions and could walk away from the city if Sodo encounters another setback.

It is perplexing that someone as smart as Geoff Baker would understand that Sodo is a single step away from being "shovel ready" in the eyes of the league but would put forward an unchallenged quote from Chris Brozovich describing KeyArena as the straightest path to arena completion.   It is even more difficult to comprehend that a seasoned sports business reporter like Geoff would acknowledge that the NHL's expansion delay is to await the outcome of the Occidental Street vacation, be aware that a delay to this vote may eliminate the city from expansion consideration, and yet somehow came to the conclusion that THIS E-MAIL is a bigger story than either of those things.

In response to Geoff's article and the subsequent revelations about M.T. Phoenix, readers have rightfully asked why Geoff could display such poor understanding of the issue that he would choose this obviously unqualified, single e-mail to highlight as opposed to a more thoughtful story about this January deadline and how the Occidental vacation could impact that process.

These questions have taken their toll, and in addition to massively editing the online edition of the story, Baker was forced yesterday to provide clarification of his initial comments in a follow-up article which defends his vetting of M.T. Phoenix and offers additional context about the company.  While the simple fact that this article needed to be written at all is a clear acknowledgement of the shoddy journalism involved in Bakers initial article, the admission of inaccuracy comes only after the polls have been put forward, the editorial board has made their statement and people's perception of Sodo has shifted.  The damage is done and this is effort comes across as a lame attempt to shirk accountability rather than a legitimate effort to provide honest perspective.

Baker is unwilling to acknowledge the readily obvious fact that M.T. Phoenix is not under scrutiny, but rather has been completely discredited.  By continuing to place focus on this completely irrelevant non-stakeholder, he successfully draws attention even further from the real story:  We are a single step away from having the "shovel ready" arena. At that point, so long as that step is completed by the end of the year, we will be eligible to get back in the game for immediate NHL expansion AND be able to substantially escalate conversations with the NBA, who have made it abundantly clear that expansion/relocation discussions will have a substantially different tone if and when we can provide an unimpeded path towards an arena.

The simple fact that a major regional newspaper and its employees, including self-described "really smart guys" like Geoff Baker, are willing to showcase M.T. Phoenix to write timely front page headlines forwarding an obvious agenda is disheartening.  A generous reader may conclude that the paper, which used to be a regional institution which could be relied upon for accurate information, has sunk to the level of a basic blog, generating sensationalist headlines to create controversy and pad their online hit stats. Or, perhaps, that Baker is so desperate to come up with a scoop that he will write an article about any yahoo off the street who is willing to call him back.

A less generous, but at this point very believable, alternative is that this M.T. Phoenix was put forward by the Times intentionally as part of broader effort to delay the Occidental street vacation and spurn the NHL Commissioner, who has gone so far as to delay expansion efforts until after that decision is made.

Geoff Baker's editor, Don Shelton, can be reached via e-mail at dshelton@seattletimes.com or on Twitter at @STdonshelton.  I encourage you to contact Don and ask about his department's ongoing coverage of this story.