Seattle debate in extra innings

Ballpark: The Mariners' $517 million Safeco Field opens tomorrow, but questions about its cost and who'll pay for a $100 million overrun continue to dog the project.

July 14, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SEATTLE -- To open their new ballpark tomorrow, the Seattle Mariners and their supporters followed a now-familiar playbook. The team tantalized fans with a few sneak previews of the predictably dazzling park. Radio stations began broadcasting live and breathlessly from bars across the street, counting down the days. Ticket brokers asked -- and received -- 10 times face value for seats to the long sold-out game.

But also increasingly familiar is the counterpoint that has risen in opposition to this carefully orchestrated buildup -- a rumbling, growing drumbeat of discontent from naysayers who wonder how much is too much for taxpayers to shell out for these lavish new playgrounds.

Safeco Field is the newest and, at $517 million, the costliest of the post-Camden Yards facilities. Several weeks ago, the Mariners outraged many by demanding additional public funds to help cover $100 million in cost overruns in building their new home. Seattle's stadium authority refused, saying team owners had committed to cover all expenses over the $417 million budget, and the dispute now appears headed to court.

"It's corporate welfare," said Chris Van Dyk, a longtime opponent of using public funds to construct the ballpark. "It's a cancer on the city. The body politic will never have control over this entity. The team is going to keep coming back and blackmailing us for more and more money."

Van Dyk, leader of Citizens for More Important Things, represents the extreme end of anti-stadium feelings, but even some longtime loyalists are starting to feel burdened by high costs of modern-day fandom.

"I think the owners have wrung enough money out of citizens," said Charlie Vail, who opposes increasing the public share of building Safeco. "But I know we're going to end up paying for [the cost overruns] one way or another."

Like many fans, though, Vail's disgruntlement stops well short of the ticket booth, where on this recent afternoon he was buying seats for a coming game. It is with a shrug and an air of resignation that he accepts the new economic reality of baseball.

"It's all part of the game now," said Vail, an engineer who lives in suburban Seattle.

All the amenities

The initial demand for more public funds drew instant condemnation among many fans, but the furor began to quell as opening day approached. All but four of the 69 private suites are spoken for, rented on long-term leases for $75,000 to $145,000 a year.

Fans have flocked to several open-house events, and most are seduced by the stunning facility, which has all the bells and whistles of the modern stadium plus the nostalgic grace notes of the classic ones, a combination now expected in these new, old-time parks.

There is the intimate, close-to-the-field feeling from the stands. Sweeping vistas from the upper deck of Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains and, sometimes, the elusive Mount Rainier. Club-level seats and private suites, a giant, jazzy scoreboard and booming sound system, gourmet food and microbrewed beers. Whimsical touches, the best of which may be the location of the bullpens just on the other side of a fence from a food court and a knothole-dotted wall away from a bar.

But most of all, it is the retractable roof that distinguishes Safeco Field from the stadium it replaces, the gloomy, totally enclosed and artificially turfed Kingdome immediately to the north. Safeco is open-air, with a retractable roof that in 20 minutes can be unfurled to protect players and fans from Seattle's notoriously rainy skies.

"I think it's great. The roof is wonderful. I don't care how much taxpayers have to pay for this, it's worth it," a starry-eyed Lisa Pound said after watching the roof slide away and allow the sun to splash onto the field and stands. Pound, an insurance consultant who lives in nearby Lynnwood, was watching her teen-age son play a game at Safeco one afternoon last week in one of the final tuneups before the official opening. "Of all the things taxpayers have to pay for, I have the least problem with this."

"But a deal's a deal," said her father, Byron Pound, agreeing with the stadium authority's contention that the Mariners had promised to cover construction overruns. "And these owners are billionaires."

The owners, who indeed number among their ranks several billionaires like Nintendo of Japan president Hiroshi Yamauchi, contend that the county and stadium authority had agreed to take on whatever additional debt was needed to complete construction.

Controversial project

The dispute over the cost overrun is just the latest point of contention in what has been a long-running battle over the Mariners' new stadium. In fact, the project has been controversial from the start -- voters by a narrow margin rejected a 1995 referendum to finance a new stadium for the Mariners. Then-Gov. Mike Lowry promptly called a special legislative session and succeeded in getting a revised tax plan enacted to build the park.

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