State of the City: Mayor spotlights arena as part of ‘Year of Groundbreakings’

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson took the stage of Memorial Auditorium on Wednesday night for his State of the City address and immediately began reflecting on where the city was a year ago. A group from Seattle had an agreement to buy the Kings and Johnson had just announced on the same stage that he’d recruited a competing ownership group that would try to keep the team here.

“What a difference a year makes,” the mayor said.

Johnson promoted new park construction in the city, levee improvements and support for local arts groups in his address. But the Kings took center stage, with more than half the mayor’s speech dedicated to the team’s future in Sacramento and the city’s plan to contribute $258 million toward a new $448 million arena at the Downtown Plaza.

The mayor said it was “not open to debate” about whether the city’s investment is wise, arguing that the public contribution would spur $800 million in private investment in downtown and North Natomas, where the Sleep Train Arena site would be redeveloped once the Kings move downtown in 2016. The Kings ownership group is planning to build a hotel, restaurants, housing and offices at Downtown Plaza and is exploring what to do with the nearly 200 acres that surround the current arena.

“So let’s be clear,” the mayor said. “This $258 million we’ve been talking about? It’s not a subsidy, we aren’t just writing a check or giving a handout to someone else and hoping good things happen. No. This is an investment.”

Johnson used the platform to take a swipe at Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork, a citizens group that is fighting to place the approval of public contributions to sports arenas on the ballot. STOP and other arena critics charge that the public contribution opens the city’s budget to too much risk and that the voters should have a say on the issue.

“We must ensure that nothing stops us,” the mayor said. “Pun intended.”

Later, in an interview with reporters, Johnson said the opposition to the arena plan – including a lawsuit by two Sacramento attorneys who allege the deal includes secret “sweeteners” – is driven by “people with political agendas.”

Jim Cathcart, one of STOP’s founders, said, “Some people think there’s a democracy and that people should decide these matters.”

“(The mayor) thinks he’s king of the city, and we’ll see if he is,” Cathcart said. “He doesn’t have any respect for the voters. If he had any respect for the voters, he would call an election.”

Kings Chairman Vivek Ranadive attended the speech – receiving a standing ovation from the crowd – and the Kings were a major financial sponsor. The mayor said the team would make “a significant contribution” to local arts programs and that leftover food from arena events would be given to local food banks. The team will also donate up to $100,000 to local reading programs, the mayor announced.

Ranadive told reporters outside Memorial Auditorium he was confident the arena project would proceed as planned, despite opposition. City officials hope to issue revenue bonds to help fund the construction as early as May. The mayor said groundbreaking is scheduled for September.

“It’s a go all the way,” Ranadive said. He added the team has already made a significant financial investment in the city, including the recent $36 million purchase of most of the Downtown Plaza site.

Beyond the focus on the Kings, the mayor’s speech was a highlight reel of the last year sprinkled with goals for 2014. Some of those goals – including a pledge to add 50 police officers to city streets, end fire station brownouts and beef up the city’s economic reserve – are underway, thanks in part to a sales tax increase approved by the voters in 2012.

After calling 2013 “the year of food” in Sacramento, Johnson dubbed this year “the year of groundbreakings.” He read a list of projects around the city slated to begin this year, including long-awaited improvements to the North Natomas Regional Park, new housing in North Sacramento and Oak Park, a new park in the Fruitridge Manor neighborhood of south Sacramento and a freeway interchange at the planned 800-acre Delta Shores housing and retail development near Meadowview.

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