Johnson on Kings Arena: Cal Expo a Long Shot; Start Looking Elsewhere

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Mayor Johnson knew exactly where he was standing yesterday – no matter how much he tried to play it off …
Johnson: “I didn’t even see that view …”
He stood on the 25th floor of a downtown skyscraper, with a clear view of the city’s flagship development site, the Railyards. The Kings’ current home, Arco Arena? Way off in the distance. And Cal Expo? You could hardly see it at all.
Johnson: “Sacramento has been waiting for a deal to come together at Cal Expo. We’ve been patient. And there is no deal on the horizon.”
So, the mayor said, he’s looking for other ideas. He wants a task force of city officials and private-sector community leaders to establish clear guidelines and criteria for new arena proposals – and then throw the door open and let the proposals stream in.
Johnson: “The goal to have a clear path to a new arena before the end of the basketball season. Is that ambitious? Yes. And do we have every intention of getting there? Yes.”
Johnson also laid out what he calls Sacramento’s “Rules of the Game.” They include no new taxes, since voters rejected them back in 2006; and not letting the city be used as leverage for the Kings to find a better deal somewhere else.
Reaction from Cal Expo was mixed. General Manager Norb Bartosik says he’ll continue to work with the NBA and local government on the current proposal at the state fairgrounds. He’s also open to exploring other options. But he had words of warning in response to Johnson labeling the Cal Expo project a long shot.
Bartosik: “With all due respect to the mayor, a long shot is wherever you’re going to build something in this economic downturn right now. So flip a coin – pick the spot.”
That skepticism was echoed by local political consultant Doug Elmets, who worked on the arena sales tax campaign that failed three years ago. The mayor wants new proposals submitted within the next month or two – a very short time period for a project as complex as this one. Johnson says he’s heard rumblings that new proposals are out there. But Elmets isn’t so sure they’ll work.
Elmets: “There’s no question that the mayor is taking a huge gamble by setting an artificial deadline. He’s really hoping that proposals are going to come in. And I think during the current economic environment, that’s going to be a big challenge.”
Johnson floated the Westfield Downtown Plaza as a potential arena site. And Railyards developer Suheil Totah says his company, Thomas Enterprises, will submit a proposal to the mayor’s task force.
Totah: “The arena would be a great anchor for the Railyards for an entertainment district. It will be really a magnet that will help us and downtown Sacramento attract more retail and more restaurants.”
But the big question is who would fund an arena. Even Suheil Totah doesn’t have an answer to that. Meanwhile, Cal Expo’s board will vote Friday on extending its exclusive negotiations with the NBA for another six months. They’ve already been talking for the last two years.