They wailed, they warned, they predicted doom. Twenty-one years ago, small-thinking naysayers castigated the city when our civic leaders agreed to loan the Kings $74 million to keep them in town.
The Sacramento Kings have remained the Sacramento Kings because of that loan, and the city is the dynamic place it is today because of that unpopular decision.
The loan is expected to be paid off by the Kings sometime next month, far earlier than scheduled. To be precise: The Kings are paying off their loan from the city 8 1/2 years before its maturity date with a final payment of $30 million likely in January.
But the payback has been more than money.
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That loan, spearheaded in 1997 by the late, great Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna Jr., preserved the valuable community the Kings have fostered since big-dreaming builder Greg Lukenbill moved them to town from Kansas City in 1985. Keeping the Kings as a community asset and amenity — the games a gathering and rallying place for citizens like no other in the region — was an early investment that changed minds and foreshadowed the investments that Sacramento is poised to make in itself in 2019.
That loan broadened the perspective of one Darrell Steinberg, a rookie city councilman in 1997 and now the Mayor of Sacramento. Back then, Steinberg worried greatly over the heat he was taking for supporting the loan but he voted for it anyway.
Consider what has happened since.
The most significant achievement of former Mayor Kevin Johnson was being the local front man for a massive effort to build Golden 1 Center downtown and keep the Kings here for good. That effort also traded a dying downtown mall for G1C and Downtown Commons and the subsequent rise in downtown property values and adjacent building and renovating that never would have happened without G1C. It maintained local control over the former Arco Arena and the land around it.
It was Steinberg, as leader of the state senate, who teamed with Johnson and played a major role in getting G1C built by crafting legislation that prevented nuisance lawsuits from halting Sacramento’s gleaming new arena. It was Steinberg who led the charge this year to convince Sacramento residents to vote to tax themselves by supporting Measure U. The one-cent sales tax will generate $50 million to preserve key public safety services and another $50 million so that “Sacramento can dream,” he said.
What dreams? Having money to attract investment in Sacramento’s small business sector, which would increase Sacramento’s tax base, which would increase its ability to enliven Old Sacramento, the riverfront, the downtown rail yards. The money could help spur the construction of badly needed affordable housing. It could lift communities left behind like north Sacramento, Oak Park, North Franklin Blvd.
The Kings owners built the spectacular Kimpton hotel behind the arena. DOCO is not yet done but is a fun place to be before and after arena events.
Couple all of this with the explosion of Sacramento’s food, beer and wine landscape and its arts community, its music scene, its health care sector and its nascent projects bringing Jump Bikes, electric cars and 5G technology.
That’s a community movement built on the belief that good things happen when Sacramento invests in itself.
Steinberg’s entire agenda is based on this belief. And despite what some naysayers continue to claim, Sacramento has bought into the theory that first led Steinberg to support the 1997 loan and inspired Serna to champion it: You have to dream it before you can do it.
Serna didn’t want to be the mayor who lost the Kings. He wanted Sacramento to thrive. Despite personal issues that dogged his eight years in office, Johnson was motivated by the fear of losing the Kings and the same desire to raise Sacramento beyond the limited scope of people who said no to everything and attacked anyone who dared think big for Sacramento.
Even if he wasn’t always clear on how to politically make some of his ideas happen, Johnson knew that there was a generation of young people coming up in Sacramento who wanted to be aspirational and optimistic about their city. So along with trading on his relationship with former NBA Commissioner David Stern to help make G1C happen, Johnson created an innovation fund that lives on under Steinberg. He helped create the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, the leading facilitator for economic development in the region.
These efforts are already bringing results. UC Davis is moving across the causeway to bring its technology and innovation to Aggie Square, which, as The Bee’s Ryan Lillis reported in August, “one day could include 1 million square feet of research space, parks, entertainment venues and housing.” The university has already broken ground on the first phase of that development, a rehabilitation hospital near Stockton Blvd that will create 200 jobs.
Sacramento State is looking to increase its footprint in downtown Sacramento. Fortune 500 health insurer Centene is building a new campus in North Natomas that will have at least 5,000 employees, up from 3,000 people it currently employees in the region. It happened because of an incentive package where city leaders approved paying the company $9,000 for every new job created in the city.
Sacramento is a vibrant city getting national attention today because Sacramento’s many small thinkers lost the battle of public opinion. They not only lost, they have been proven wrong.
There were people who used to swear up and down that the Kings loan was coming out of the city general fund. It wasn’t. There were people who feared that the general fund would be plundered by G1C. It wasn’t. There were people who screamed for a public vote on G1C and took the city court, wasting millions of dollars and driving up the price of the arena before losing in court every time.
Where are these naysayers now? They are quiet. What happened to all the screaming about the 1997 loan? That’s long forgotten. There were actually elected officials who spoke openly about being afraid the Kings wouldn’t pay the loan back.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with community debate, especially when public money is involved. I’m not going to use this space to call out the naysayers by name. From elected officials to perennial opponents, you know who you are.
It has been so great for Sacramento that you didn’t win. It’s been great for Sacramento that you’ve been proven wrong.
Now the Kings are winning, after twelve long years of losing. Sacramento is winning. The team is young and improving, and so is the town.
It didn’t all happen by accident. It started 21 years ago when the real leaders of Sacramento believed that their city could be more than its tiny reputation, and didn’t give in to the fear mongered by small thinkers.
The payoff was worth the wait.