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The Future of Seattle Center (and Key Arena too)

International fountainIn its 50th year, Seattle Center is one of our city’s greatest treasures. And it has suddenly captured a lot of renewed attention because of Chris Hansen’s proposed new sports and entertainment arena in SODO. This attention is a good thing. It focuses the City on the challenges and opportunities we currently face at Seattle Center.

Seattle Center is a place visited by millions of people every year, a mixing place for all ages, cultures, races and interests.

Created for the 1962 World’s Fair, it sits on the edge of the neighborhood where Joleen and I raised our daughters and live today. I can remember visiting the Center during the Fair, sneaking through a fence to avoid the price of a ticket.

Seattle Center houses some of our city’s most significant arts and cultural organizations (and more are coming to the campus soon). The Pacific Science Center is a model of research and education for all ages. Our local PBS station—KCTS 9—broadcasts from the Center. The International Fountain—built in 1961 and completely redone in 1995—is a wonderful playground for children and adults running to dodge the spurts of water that shoot 120 feet into the air.

Seattle Center is part civic square, part arts and sports venue, part school, park and open space. It’s a safe place where people gather from throughout Washington and the world to play, reflect, learn, watch and cheer. It’s a prize of immense value.

Despite its history and importance, beneath its outward beauty Seattle Center is in trouble. The Center is not meeting its financial plan and it has struggled for the past several years to meet its budget obligations. A report issued earlier this year and presented to the City Council documents these financial challenges. Major nonprofit organization tenants at the Center owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in past rent. Next Monday, I expect the Mayor’s budget recommendations for 2013-2014 to ask us to once again lend the Center money from our reserves while, at the same time, acknowledging that the Center can’t repay earlier loans as promised.

Going back to the early 1990s, there have been multiple planning efforts designed to put the Center on a firm financial footing and set a clear vision for its future, the latest being the Century 21 Master Plan adopted in 2008.

It is into this context and history that Chris Hansen’s proposal for a new sports and entertainment arena arrived. Hansen’s proposal did not cause the Center’s financial trials. But it does create an opportunity to move us forward. If he’s successful, Seattle’s new NBA team will play at Key Arena for at least two and possibly three years while the new arena is constructed. These seasons will draw more people to the Center and its surrounding neighborhood, create new tax revenues to help offset the costs of long-range planning and give time for the Center’s leadership and advocates to work on implementation of the Century 21 plan.

There are multiple reasons for the challenges we face at Seattle Center—loss of the Sonics in 2008, the economic recession, unrealistic budget expectations that required Center leaders to produce net revenue gains while also providing hefty discounts to favored nonprofit organizations, and the lack of political will at City Hall to forge ahead with a specific plan of action, to name just a few big ones. Now we have a chance to grab the opportunity the arena proposal has created and release the innovative energy that abounds in this city.

There are plenty of examples that can guide us, both inside and out of city government: the transformation of the central waterfront project, the public-private partnership that spurred South Lake Union’s renaissance, the growing expansion of our regional rail and transportation network, the recently doubled Families and Education Levy that helps struggling schools and students, the Libraries for All campaign that rebuilt or remodeled every one of the city's libraries.

These are a few examples of what we can do when we put our minds together, identify strategic goals, work collaboratively, and invite participation from both the public and private sectors. We can do this for Seattle Center and we should start right now.
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