Paul Allen's decision to abandon Husky Stadium as a potential site for the Seattle Seahawks brings King County officials one step closer to a difficult choice: Raze the Kingdome or lose the Seahawks.
Such were the prospects yesterday after Allen informed University of Washington President Richard McCormick he would ask the Kingdome Stadium Task Force to drop a proposed renovated Husky Stadium from consideration. The campus site was one of five options being examined for the Seahawks, the NFL team Allen has an exclusive option to buy.
The task force is to hear a detailed analysis of the four remaining options Monday, then make a recommendation to the Metropolitan King County Council next Friday. The options are a renovated Kingdome, a new downtown stadium and two suburban sites in Kent.
Football Northwest, Allen's group formed to buy the Seahawks from Ken Behring, already rejected a renovated Kingdome because the plan fell short of NFL seating standards. Allen's advisers also have said they prefer a downtown stadium to a suburban site.
Last April, when Allen purchased his option to buy the team, the Mercer Island billionaire said the best way to keep the Hawks in Seattle was to build a stadium like those in Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla. Those new NFL franchises have become immediate financial successes because of their facilities.
Allen's vision gained support yesterday when Mayor Norm Rice became the first elected official to publicly endorse demolishing the 20-year-old Kingdome and starting over.
Metropolitan King County Councilman Ron Sims said the Husky Stadium decision, along with the sentiment that suburban sites won't work, means that a renovated Kingdome or a new stadium where the Kingdome stands appear to be the only solutions for persuading Allen to exercise his option to buy the team.
That, however, could be a problem for King County officials, because the Kingdome is strapped with $130 million in debt service. The stadium is run by the county.
Kevin Raymond, chief of staff for County Executive Gary Locke, the governor-elect, said he hopes results of a new Kingdome study to be announced next week "could cause Paul Allen to conclude he could live without natural turf" and use the aging Dome.
But after eight months of examining potential county sites, the focus seems to be headed back to where it started with Allen - a new facility that can generate millions for the potential owner.
Many obstacles need to be cleared before such a project could materialize. Foremost is shortening the Seahawks' Kingdome lease from the current nine-year arrangement. Football Northwest wants a three-year lease before lobbying the Legislature to support a new stadium.
Bob Whitsitt, Football Northwest president, last month gave King County officials what amounted to an ultimatum, setting a Dec. 15 deadline to reach agreement on the lease. Whitsitt said Allen was prepared to abandon his efforts to buy the team if a deal was not consummated.
Whitsitt said county officials promised him a better lease to induce Allen to buy the team from Behring, who threatened in February to move the Hawks to Southern California. County officials said they considered offering Allen concessions if he actually bought the team, not just an option to buy.
Talks produce no results
With time at a premium, Football Northwest and county officials have so far failed to reach a compromise. Allen's group offered a proposal yesterday and is awaiting a response from the county.
Pat Patrick, task force co-chairman, is worried about the deal falling apart.
"My biggest concern is that we spent a year doing all this work and there won't be football in the Seattle area," he said. "If an agreement with Paul Allen is not reached, then the NFL would not feel Seattle is a suitable place for them to be."
As frustration over the lease increased, so did the negative response to renovating Husky Stadium.
In the letter to McCormick, Allen said the negatives outweighed any positives in using the stadium for 10 games from August to January.
That was evident from the passionate pleas expressed by faculty, students, staff and neighborhood residents who organized a strong campaign to fight the proposal.
Campus and community meetings raised a multitude of concerns, including traffic, parking, use of alcohol and access to the university's medical center, which is next to Husky Stadium.
"I felt that sooner or later the problems would become apparent to Mr. Allen," said Michael van Eckhardt, president of the Montlake Community Club. "I'm glad it was sooner than later. We were going to be in it for the long haul."
Jeannie Hale, Laurelhurst Community Club president, said about 20 organizations fought against the Husky Stadium plan. "This is a big relief."
Sims said Allen and Football Northwest had not expected the strength of opposition.
"It was the most effective e-mail campaign I have ever seen," said Sims, who received 20 to 25 electronic messages daily from citizens opposed to the Seahawks' use of Husky Stadium.
Although neighborhood residents were most vocal, it became clear to Allen he could not mitigate the problems presented at the UW.
Bert Kolde, Football Northwest vice chairman, suggested this week a pedestrian tunnel under the intersection at Montlake Boulevard Northeast and Northeast Pacific Street could ease congestion and provide better access to the medical center. He also suggested a new 2,400-space underground parking structure could be reserved for those using the university during game times.
But every Football Northwest proposal was met with a challenge by either neighborhood residents, faculty or students.
"Football Northwest suggested building a helipad to fly in patients to the medical center," said Joan Martin, Faculty Senate chairwoman. "Were they going to fly in doctors, too?"
A renovated stadium could generate millions for the university, but it was not enough to end opposition.
In a university meeting this week, Kolde said the school stood to gain $8.4 million annually from an improved and enlarged stadium.
Too much to ask
Scott Oki, a member of the UW Board of Regents, said the assets needed to far outweigh the liabilities, and in the end everyone realized that was too much to ask.
"For many, the school is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a week operation," Executive Vice President Weldon Ihrig said. "It's alive in different ways on Saturdays and Sundays. Not only are students and faculty and staff doing research and using the library, but there is a multitude of cultural events and special-education programs."
Those events, administrators said, are as important to the university as revenue from football.