Why voters may kill arena

By R.E. Graswich

Our third arena debate was a preview of what could happen if the downtown Sacramento arena subsidy is placed on the ballot.

The arena subsidy might very well lose.

Another packed house greeted moderator John McGinness, John Hyde and me this week at the Belle Cooledge Library on South Land Park Drive. Among the first audience members to arrive was retired Mayor Anne Rudin.

For those who don’t remember Mayor Rudin, she was the city’s presiding officer in 1985, when the Kings came to town.

I introduced Mayor Rudin on Tuesday night, but she didn’t wish to speak.

Then I pointed out that Mayor Rudin was ridiculed by sports fans in 1985 when she tried to separate the Kings from land-use decisions the city council was making in North Natomas.

The Kings’ owners, Gregg Lukenbill and Joe Benvenuti, injected the Kings into land-use policy. They used the team to leverage the council to approve immediate development in the agriculture flood basin.

North Natomas would be a different place today if not for the Kings. Essentially, the team built the community. The Kings were the whip used by Lukenbill and Benvenuti to speed entitlements in a region off-limits to developers.*

From a planning standpoint, Mayor Rudin was right to separate the Kings from land-use decisions. Politically, she was doomed. This week, she nodded when I mentioned these things.

Now elements of history are repeating themselves. The city council is making policy decisions about subsidizing the Kings for the grander purpose of downtown redevelopment. The council’s mind is made up. The Kings will benefit. So will the community, or so the council’s majority believes.

But this time, Sacramento isn’t doing backflips over its new presence on the roster of major league cities. Just the opposite. We are barely hanging onto our status. Without the subsidy, the Kings will certainly move away.

And this is where our arena debate Tuesday night was instructive: Probably 90 percent of that audience won’t care if the Kings leave. A majority of them don’t particularly care what happens downtown or whether a fancy new arena is built at Fifth and L Streets.

They want a safe, peaceful, well-managed city. They want parks maintained. They want traffic to move smoothly. And that’s about it.

In the three debates against Hyde, my most compelling arguments in favor of supporting the subsidy have been emotional:

What kind of city are we if we chase away sports, culture and investment dollars from Silicon Valley?

Why would creative, energetic young people want to live in a place without a vibrant downtown and entertainment options?

Those arguments didn’t work at Belle Cooledge Library. The response was silence. With few exceptions, the audience seemed more impressed by Hyde’s case, which is that the arena subsidy may not pay off financially for Sacramento.

The crowd didn’t care about the cultural piece of the story, about downtown’s vibrancy, about attracting young people and new investors.

In the three decades since Mayor Rudin tried and failed to separate land-use policy from sports, many Sacramento residents have grown indifferent to the Kings and the NBA. And they have learned to dislike the people who own the Kings.

True, they don’t know much about Vivek Ranadive. But from their experiences with NBA owners, they don’t trust him. He’s an outsider with lots of money. Why help him?

Mayor Rudin ultimately voted in favor of the Kings. She approved their entitlements in North Natomas. For her troubles, she was booed at the old Arco Arena on opening night, 1985.

There was no ballot measure on the Kings back then. But if there’s a ballot measure this time, I doubt the outcome will favor the Kings.

Only about 35 percent of Sacramento voters turn out for June primary elections these days. People just don’t care. Yet I’ll bet 100 percent of our debate audience at Belle Cooledge Library votes. And 90 percent will oppose the subsidy.

Those folks weren’t the sports fans who booed Mayor Rudin in 1985. And they have long memories.



Posted in Arena, Sacramento, Sacramento Kings

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R.E. Graswich