EARLIER THIS YEAR, the Mariners and the Public Facilities District (PFD), which oversaw construction of Safeco Field, announced that they had settled their dispute over $100 million in cost overruns at the two-year-old ballpark. Under the agreement, they said, "no public money will be used to reimburse the Mariners for the excess construction costs."
But, in a little-noticed deal sealed just last week, the PFD board of directors voted to "convey" a piece of publicly owned land—recently appraised at $2.3 million—to the Mariners' owners. The property at First Avenue and Atlantic Street, right next to the stadium, was used during Safeco's construction and is currently home (on game days) to a little Outback Steakhouse concession. Under current zoning, an eight- or nine-story office building could be built on the site.
The PFD and the team publicly described this transaction as a "sale." But the fine print of the agreement actually specifies that the purchase price be returned to the Mariners within fourteen days.
"At this point," says PFD attorney Gerry Johnson, "it means the Mariners' cost overrun obligation is less." Johnson argues that since the PFD originally bought the property with money earmarked for ballpark construction, any income from the sale should be used to offset the Mariners' bill. "It's a closed system," he says. "The money came out of project funds. It goes back into project funds and can only be used for project expenses." PFD director Kevin Callan notes that, "If we hadn't bought the property, we would have used that money elsewhere on the project," which, in turn, would have reduced the cost overruns. "Giving the money back to the Club seems like the right thing to do to me, and to the board," Callan says.
But since taxpayers have already fully paid their $372 million share of Safeco Field's construction tab—including $1.1 million to buy up the Atlantic Street property back in 1997—the gift of the property seems to be at odds with the principle of "no more public money" that was touted by the PDC and the team.
Mark D. Fefer