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Is Seattle City Council Breaking Ranks on Arena Proposal?

Tim Burgess offers context to comments that sparked a flurry of headlines over the weekend. Is it enough?

Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess
Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess

Comments made by Seattle City Council president Tim Burgess seemed to indicate a significant softening of support for the proposed arena in the SoDo neighborhood before he offered a clarification of that position Monday morning.

Following the long-awaited release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the arena proposal, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat quoted Burgess in an article declaring the project all but dead as far as public funds are concerned.

Basically, the Sodo arena is dead. Unless someone revives it with bucketloads of fresh money.

The city now wants all or most of the $125 million in bonds it pledged for an arena to be replaced by private financing. For all practical purposes, the city wants out.

Members of the national media and fans interpreted Burgess' comments to mean he was pulling support for the project. CBS Sports announced that "Seattle city council wants to pull public funds from proposed arena," while NBC Sports' ProHockeyTalk warned that "Hansen’s Seattle arena proposal might not get public funding."

Councilmember Burgess explained in a statement Monday that his comments were in regard to the idea of an "NHL-first" proposal to amend the existing Memorandum of Understanding between the City of Seattle, King County, and the arena investment group led by Chris Hansen.

Some have asked whether the City would change the agreement to allow the Arena to proceed upon the award of an NHL team to Seattle. Shifting the agreement to accommodate an NHL team would be a material change in the terms of the agreement and, in my opinion, would require a substantial reduction or elimination of public financing. Such a change would also require County Council approval.

In the Times piece, Burgess speaks directly about the potential of basing the proposed public financing framework on acquiring an NHL franchise instead of an NBA team as originally negotiated. "We specifically wrote the idea of a hockey-only or hockey-first arena out of the agreement three years ago. We did that because it’s very weak financially. It’s just too risky for the city."

"If we’re going to do hockey, there would have to be a substantial lowering, if not elimination, of the public investment," Burgess is quoted.

Westneat's article goes on to outline a position against using any public financing toward an arena at all, intimating that Burgess authored points defining the position or, at the very least, supported them. In his personal address, Burgess reiterated the existing commitment to the arena project.

The City, King County and the Hansen group have a legally binding agreement related to the SODO arena. That agreement includes a list of prerequisites that must be met before the public financing dollars become available. The original MOU remains in place and its terms are actionable if the prerequisites are met.

Burgess' clarification, while an improvement from his previous position, still seems to fall short of Mayor Ed Murray's commentary regarding the arena. "No major findings stand in the way of arena construction," Murray declared last Thursday.

Yet, with the city's paper of record, council president Burgess chose to revisit previous concerns about the SoDo site. Further, he indicated that the arrival of a competitive arena proposal in Tukwila, sold as "100% privately financed," may influence council actions going forward. While Burgess' clarification correctly identified that the MOU remains legally binding and its terms "actionable," the statement does not include any mention of his own continued support of the arena.

With district elections on the horizon, arena supporters would be wise to question Burgess, who is running for an "at-large" citywide seat, and his peers about whether they remain supportive of the project or would be content to see the jobs, nightlife, and opportunity it offers move to an alternative site in Tukwila or Bellevue.