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Published: Thursday, April 5, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Mariners send wrong message about new arena

The team doesn't want a new arena built in its backyard, citing traffic concerns. But it should be using its energy to help solve the traffic problem rather than standing in the way of a facility that could bring the NBA and NHL to Seattle.

The Mariners concerns about a proposed new arena south of Safeco Field are legitimate. Their message, however, leaves a lot to be desired.
Stating concerns about traffic and parking, Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln sent a letter to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and members of the city and county councils. In it, the Mariners took that stance that they welcome the return of the NBA, but that it won't work in the SODO neighborhood.
Not surprisingly, there was pretty severe, and in some cases, deserved, backlash. The Mariners, now playoff free for more than a decade, can be easy targets for ridicule, and to a lot of people, citing traffic concerns seemed like a cover for the fact that Mariners just don't want NBA and NHL teams in town competing for corporate money, season ticket sales and general fan interest.
In the letter sent to Tuesday, and also in interviews Wednesday with numerous media outlets, the Mariners insist that isn't the case.
"The Mariners strongly support bringing professional basketball back to the Seattle community," team president Chuck Armstrong said in a phone interview. "We enthusiastically support that. We think it would be fun to bring in an NHL team. I think it would be great for the community, for all the altruistic reasons that people talk about -- the great history of the NBA here, the championship -- but also from our personal interest standpoint. When the Sonics left, we found that it seemed to sour the community and fans on professional sports. So we never saw the Sonics as competition. This is not an economic issue at all."
Armstrong added that the overlap with potential NBA and NHL teams isn't as big of a concern as are the numerous other events that would needed to make a new arena viable.
"When we do mock schedules with NBA and NHL, we figure there would be conflict somewhere between seven and 11 times," he said. "The bigger concern is that in order to make an arena viable, you have to have 200 event days a year, so it's the Adele concert, it's the Harlem Globetrotters, it's Kenny Chesney, it's the circus, it's the Northwest Flower and Garden show, it's all of that stuff."
The Mariners have every right to express their concerns with the arena proposal made by Seattle native Chris Hansen, a San Francisco hedge-fun manager who already has purchased a plot of land just south of the Safeco Field parking garage. But don't say this can't work. Don't say traffic is so bad in the area that you're going to fight the return of something, that by your own admission, would benefit the region.
Instead, the Mariners should be using their considerable sway in the community to help address the traffic issues that plague the area whether there are multiple events going on or not. As Dave Gering, the executive director of the Manufacturing Industrial Council, told the Seattle Times, "The problem isn't just game days. It's the congestion that already exists at 8 a.m. every weekday morning."
Well in that case, stopping a new arena won't solve the issue. Instead, a new arena should be the impetus for bringing these problems that affect the region's economy into the public consciousness so solutions can be found to improve traffic conditions not just on game day, but every day. And let's be clear, the Port of Seattle's traffic concerns are much more important than those of a baseball team.
One can argue that traffic headaches are just part of being a major league city, and that if the teams are putting out a compelling product, fans will tolerate the occasional traffic mess. (Sort of like how if the weather is good enough, people will live in and tolerate the commute in Los Angeles).
And on those rare days when Safeco Field is full and a new arena also had an event, traffic would no doubt be a mess. But it also wouldn't be an unprecedented mess.
When the Seahawks played games on a Monday and Thursday last season, roughly 67,000 fans were in the area both times for games that started right in the middle of the evening commute. A sold-out Safeco Field plus a sold-out basketball arena would bring around the same number of people to the area.
Was traffic a breeze for those weeknight Seahawks games? Absolutely not. But did fans riot on the freeway off-ramps because they feared missing the opening kickoff? Was a state of emergency declared, prompting the presence of the National Guard? Hardly. Traffic was crappy, people dealt with it, life went on.
If, as the Mariners and the Port of Seattle suggest, fixing traffic in the area will cost "hundreds of millions" this isn't a new arena problem; this is a much bigger problem the city needs to fix. A new arena, and all of the benefits that come with it, sounds like a pretty good reason to address that problem.
If a new arena is to be built, Armstrong says other areas should be considered. The problem with this, of course, is that Hansen already owns land in south downtown (SODO) and has offered up $290 million in private investment to build the arena. That deal doesn't exist in Bellevue, or lower Queen Anne, or Renton, or anywhere else. So to fans, the Mariners opposition to a SODO arena comes across as opposition to the return of the NBA, because the SODO arena has the best chance of being built.
"I guess we are surprised that people are interpreting that we're opposed to bringing these teams here," Armstrong said. "We're not."
The Mariners shouldn't be surprised by the backlash. A lot of the same people who have supported the Mariners through thick and very, very thin are also NBA and NLH fans, and by opposing what is currently the clearest path to securing those sports in Seattle, the Mariners are alienating those fans.
The problem isn't that the Mariners have concerns about a new arena in SODO. It's that they are putting their energy into stopping the project rather than using it as a way to address a big issue in the neighborhood they claim to be protecting.
Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » Mariners

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