The Sacramento City Council approved a resolution Tuesday night throwing its support behind keeping the Kings in town and contributing resources toward a new downtown sports arena.
While symbolic, the 7-2 City Council vote to approve the resolution showed that the council is willing to get behind Mayor Kevin Johnson's quest to block the Kings' plan to move to Seattle.
What's more, it showed there is an appetite on the council for providing a city subsidy to a new arena seen as vital to Johnson's cause.
The resolution included the city's "continued commitment to enter into a public-private partnership to develop a new sports and entertainment facility for the region that meets NBA standards and represents a sound fiscal and economic development investment for the city's taxpayers."
Johnson has been working for weeks to recruit deep-pocketed investors to buy the Kings and partner with the city on an arena project.
The mayor plans to reveal that team by the end of the month and present it to the NBA as an alternative to the deal the team's owners have to sell the Kings to a Seattle group seeking to move the franchise to the Pacific Northwest.
The NBA's board of governors is expected to rule on the proposed Kings sale and relocation at its meeting in April.
So far, it is unclear what the city will be asked to contribute to the arena project. Johnson and other city officials have said that an estimated $255 million public subsidy funded by city parking revenue, approved last spring as part of a deal that was rejected by the Kings' owners, is still on the table. NBA Commissioner David Stern recently described the city's expected subsidy of a new arena as "significant."
City Manager John Shirey told the council Tuesday that city officials "have met with a potential investment group that would be interested in purchasing the Kings, keeping them here and investing in a new downtown arena."
While that investment team has not been revealed, Southern California grocery tycoon Ron Burkle and 24-Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov are in serious discussions over combining on a bid.
If a Sacramento ownership group announces a plan to buy the team, city staff officials said they likely will ask the council in the coming weeks if it wants them to enter into talks with that group to determine how much the city would put into an arena financing deal. Later, the council would be expected to vote a second time on whether it approves any financing agreements involving city money or assets.
That potential public contribution is what drew opponents to Tuesday's debate.
Many speakers urged the council to reject the resolution, with some arguing that Burkle and Mastrov have the means to fund the project themselves.
"If you want to keep the Kings in Sacramento, why don't you ask the whales, the billionaires, to come up with the money for the whole thing?" asked Bob Blymyer, head of the Sacramento Taxpayers Association.
Another speaker, Isaac Gonzalez, encouraged the City Council to approve an arena financing plan only if it guarantees that the city's general fund receives profits from the facility and that "the city will make a modest return on its investment."
Councilman Kevin McCarty who along with Councilman Darrell Fong voted against the resolution sent a letter to Shirey on Tuesday night asking more than two dozen questions about the potential arena deal, including why the city may be willing to pay for 65 percent of the cost of the new arena when Seattle's public investment is closer to 40 percent for a proposed arena in that city.
He also asked how much return on investment the city would get from the project and what the private investors' rate of return would be. He called for an outside economist to be hired to review arena revenue projections.
Most of McCarty's questions would appear to be unanswerable until the city and the private investors negotiate each party's share of an arena project's costs and revenues. Still, he remains City Hall's most vocal opponent of an arena subsidy.
"I think it is not only about this resolution," McCarty said of Tuesday's vote. "It's more about setting the stage for a significant, massive public subsidy for a sports venue in our city."
Councilman Steve Hansen said it was too early to judge the arena plan.
"We don't even know what we're arguing about yet," he said. "I encourage you to let the process go forward without prejudging it." He added, "Every great city has a coliseum."
Once again, the debate drew a crowd of Kings fans to City Hall.
"I believe this is almost a no-brainer," said Jeff Bradway, one of roughly 30 Kings fans dressed in matching T-shirts who attended the hearing. "The Kings are one of our greatest assets."