Monday, August 26, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sale Of Seahawks To Paul Allen Fraught With Tough Choices

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The cover page of Paul Allen's Seahawks Web site features a photograph of the Carolina Panthers' posh outdoor stadium, which is not only the crown jewel of the National Football League but the polar opposite of the utilitarian Kingdome.

The choice of image symbolizes both Allen's grand thinking and the agonizing choices facing professional football in Seattle.

While the team may convert disillusioned fans simply by winning when its season begins Sunday, Allen's efforts to buy the team from Ken Behring are fraught with multimillion-dollar choices, compromises and political pitfalls that will last well beyond this season.

Allen has negotiated a confidential sale price with Behring and has until July 1 to decide if he will buy the team. The key to his decision is whether he can get commitments to massively improve Seattle's stadium picture.

Allen and King County are awaiting the results of a study examining the costs and feasibility of a spectrum of stadium options, from remodeling the Kingdome, to tearing it down and starting over, to using Husky Stadium.

The study, conducted by HOK Sports Facilities Group of Kansas City and jointly paid for by King County and Allen's Football Northwest Inc., probably won't be released until after the November election.

Allen and his representative, Bob Whitsitt, have been careful not to publicly get ahead of the HOK study, but it's no secret they are skeptical about the Kingdome's potential.

"Let's just wait and see what the study and its numbers tell us," Whitsitt said. "We want to see what the options are in real-world costs. But let's not be afraid of what the answers are."

Whatever the study concludes, it is likely to frighten taxpayers already on the hook for most of the estimated $320 million to build a new stadium for the Mariners.

The Kingdome issue has generated plenty of discussion but little consensus, acknowledges Pat Patrick, co-chairman of the Seahawks/Kingdome Renovation Task Force.

His group has floundered because of the ever-changing landscape of the Seahawk saga - from Behring's attempt to move the team to California to dueling lawsuits over the stadium lease, Allen's push for lease concessions and the pending study results.

The task force eventually must pass along its recommendation, along with a funding proposal, to the Metropolitan King County Council and the county executive.

Though varied, the options have one thing in common: None will come easily. The choices:

-- Remodel the Kingdome.

This is the choice of County Executive Gary Locke, who is campaigning for governor. Locke must answer to taxpayers and look out for the Kingdome, especially after sinking $70 million worth of emergency roof repairs into it.

The county would be hard put to make the Kingdome operation break even without the Mariners and Seahawks as tenants.

It holds a lease that requires the football team to play in the Dome for nine more years. The lease probably will be renegotiated if Allen buys the team, but it gives the county a measure of leverage.

Kevin Raymond, Locke's chief of staff, said Locke will seriously consider whatever the task force recommends, but an answer that doesn't include the Kingdome had better be compelling.

"The task force needs to recommend a long-term solution for the Kingdome as well as the Seahawks. And if it recommends something other than the team playing in the Kingdome, it better also have a business plan on how to keep the county facility viable," Raymond said. "The county, as a stakeholder, couldn't let the Kingdome be brought to its knees."

An initial HOK study estimated that making some of the improvements Behring said were necessary would have cost $197 million - in 1994 dollars.

Some involved in the stadium issue think the actual price tag for the building, which was built for $67 million, would exceed $250 million - and still not correct fundamental flaws.

The renovations, including luxury suites, better seats and wider concourses, would generate money exempt from NFL revenue-sharing and could be used to pay top players, theoretically producing a better team.

-- Tear down the Kingdome and start over.

Allen and the NFL want an outdoor, grass-field stadium. One overlooking Pioneer Square and the downtown skyline would fit that bill.

There is an obvious political liability, though, to demolishing the 20-year-old Dome, which is also home to trade shows and other events - especially when the community still owes $130 million on it. For many taxpayers, especially when it comes to sports teams, less is more.

But backers of the idea say the Kingdome debt will exist whether the building stays or goes and the community would be better served by a state-of-the-art stadium that would attract visitors and fans, and could be part of a master plan that includes restaurants, shops and other tourist features as well.

Some say further that an indoor stadium, no matter how grandly renovated, couldn't generate the same interest and revenue an outdoor stadium could.

"A new stadium there would be better and cheaper," said one business source. "That's a pretty good choice, isn't it?"

However, building an outdoor stadium in the Kingdome's place would require that another facility be built for the trade shows and tractor pulls now held in the Dome. Trade-show operators generally are pleased with the Kingdome.

Also, losing the Dome likely means losing the NCAA basketball Final Four tournament and other big indoor events.

-- Husky Stadium.

With views of Lake Washington and the Cascades, and already more seats than the Kingdome, a remodeled University of Washington stadium also seems to fit Allen's vision of a spectacular outdoor stadium. Remodeling it probably would be cheaper than either renovating the Kingdome or building a new stadium.

Would the university be willing to share? Very possibly, if the details are right, said one UW regent. The university could receive a vastly improved stadium and a steady infusion of money in a period when funding continues to be tight.

School officials, who allowed the Hawks to play five games there in 1994 after the Kingdome was closed for roof repairs, haven't taken a public position but have allowed the option to at least be studied.

It also could be an easier sell to taxpayers who would rather see an efficient use of an existing stadium for two teams than building a new one for 10 professional games a year.

Neighboring communities of Montlake and University Village, which face traffic and parking problems on Husky game days, would have to be accommodated before the Hawks could move in - and that would be no easy task.

King County also would lose the Kingdome rent the Seahawks have paid for 20 years.

For what it is worth, Allen has been generous toward the university, building it a library named after his late father, a former librarian at the school.

-- Build a stadium on one of five suburban sites:

1. One-hundred-and-thirty acres of pastureland near Orillia and Frager roads and South 200th Street, in a pocket of unincorporated King County between Interstate 5 and northwest Kent, the closest of the five sites to Seattle.

2. Industrial-commercial land in East Kent bordered by Highway 167, South 198th Street, 84th Avenue South and South 192nd Street. The property also was studied in the Mariner-ballpark search.

3. The 60-acre Midway landfill site in Kent, once the focus of a hazardous-waste lawsuit. Seattle, which operated the landfill from 1966 to 1983, spent $36 million cleaning up the site.

4. The Weyerhaeuser campus in Federal Way. Divided into two parcels, it's next to Interstate 5, South 320th Street and Highway 18.

5. The planned Grand Ridge development near Interstate 90 in Issaquah, which is to include a 3,200-residential unit urban village, retail and office complexes. Two-thirds of the site will be open space.

The sites are under consideration because they are big enough for a stadium and parking, and are near freeways.

There are no firm figures, but a new stadium could cost between $200 million and $250 million.

A new stadium also has ways of defraying costs to taxpayers, such as attracting corporate sponsorship through stadium "naming rights," luxury-suite sales and charging one-time fees known as "personal-seat licenses" to season ticket-holders.

Kent Mayor Jim White says he'd love to talk to Allen and the county about building a stadium in his city.

While critics of this option bring up the huge public subsidy, backers say it will be cheaper and longer-lasting than renovating the Dome.

-- Build a stadium near the Dome.

This is the most unlikely option. There isn't much space or an easy configuration near there, now that the Mariners have laid claim to the Ackerley site south of the Kingdome.

There were tentative discussions with the Mariners about delaying their plans long enough to work with football-stadium planners, but the talks went nowhere. Mariner management is steaming ahead with plans to build its stadium in time for the 1999 season.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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