There might have been a great debate over the construction of a downtown arena in Sacramento, but it never happened.
Instead, it’s been a one-sided rout culminating with Tuesday’s Sacramento City Council approval of the arena’s financial terms by a 7-2 vote.
We’ll never know if a true debate would have changed Tuesday’s outcome. Maybe not, given the pro-arena forces led by Mayor Kevin Johnson, the NBA, a hugely rich new Kings ownership group and a broad coalition of influential supporters.
But we’re talking about a $255 million public investment in a downtown arena – one of the biggest gambles in city history. How did Johnson and company roll the other side so easily?
The irony is that while anti-arena folks claim they were done in because Johnson’s forces were not honest, the truth is it was other way around.
It takes two sides to have a debate, and the side opposed to Johnson never offered a legitimate alternative to keeping the Kings and building the team an arena downtown.
The anti-arena side refused to admit that the Kings were close to being relocated to Seattle and that the city was motivated to stop that impending sale.
So instead of acknowledging the truth, arena opponents accused Johnson’s side of “corruption” and made other wild claims that the mayor dispatched as if he were flicking lint off his tailored suits.
We saw it again Wednesday when pure comedy sprang from the pages of a lawsuit alleging that the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act in approving the arena.
“Consummating a deal already brokered with the National Basketball Association, the Sacramento City Council, led by former NBA player Mayor Kevin Johnson, voted … to leave behind a perfectly good sports arena in the middle of urban north Sacramento to demolish a major section of downtown Sacramento and build a hideously designed sports arena,” Sacramento lawyer Kelly T. Smith wrote.
“In its quest to grease the project for developers and citing an unsubstantiated threat that the Sacramento Kings would be moved unless a new arena was built, the City of Sacramento and the wealthy project promoters sought special interest legislation to modify CEQA …”
Are you kidding? Seattle billionaire Chris Hansen put up the highest bid for the Kings. The Maloofs, the previous team owners, had a deal with Hansen. If Sacramento hadn’t stepped up, the Kings would have left and the city would have lost its best-known business and control over Sleep Train Arena in Natomas – and a huge swath of the land around it.
If you really wanted to combat Johnson – if you really wanted to have a true debate over the arena – you had to argue for Sacramento charting a course of new priorities without the Kings. You had to argue that the Kings would be a loss but that Sacramento could set its sights on more modest goals.
You had to argue for a smaller vision for Sacramento, but one with less risk than a $255 million investment in one project alone – the new arena at the Downtown Plaza.
But the anti-arena side could never offer serious ideas.
While screaming about the need for transparency at City Hall, the project opponents used money from Hansen to collect signatures in the failed effort to force a public vote on the plan. They said Johnson was corrupt, while they refused to reveal who was funding their legal challenges.
Or they tried to claim they supported the Kings but not the investment to keep them – which was a refusal to acknowledge that without the investment the Kings would have left.
Or they made claims that were laugh-out-loud funny.
Again, we quote from the CEQA lawsuit: “The once vibrant shopping experience of (the Downtown Plaza) will be replaced, under the Project, by an enormous cavern that looks like a crushed aluminum can.”
Putting aside the hyperbole, the line about Downtown Plaza providing a vibrant shopping experience is positively hilarious.
In the end, there wasn’t a single argument made by the anti-arena side that sounded convincing.
What they truly needed was someone with stature to present an alternative vision. City Councilman Kevin McCarty might have been that person, but instead of making a case in broad daylight, he sneaked around behind closed doors and fed information to the lawyer who eventually brought a fraud suit against the arena that was just dismissed.
This is what the pro side had over the opposition. They weren’t opposing something. They were supporting something – a desire to get behind a more vibrant Sacramento that was trying to do something big.
After the City Council approved the arena financing Tuesday night, many walked a few blocks from City Hall to KBAR, a festive downtown spot run by Randy Paragary at 10th and K streets.
People from all walks of life mingled with Sacramento City Council members, Kings executives, business leaders and others – all celebrating something they felt they had done together.
In the end, there was nothing left to debate. There was only a toast – to Sacramento.