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Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln discusses concerns about proposed arena site

By Shannon Drayer

I had the opportunity to sit down with Mariners chairman and CEO Howard Lincoln this morning to get his thoughts and the Mariners’ position on the proposed arena that would be built next to the Mariners’ parking garage.

The audio of the interview can be heard here, and a partial transcript follows. Lincoln references the letter that the Port of Seattle sent to the Chair of the Arena Advisory Committee and that can be found here. I started by asking him to please state for the record the Mariners’ position on the arena and the proposed site of the arena.

Shannon Drayer: State for the record the Mariners’ position on the arena and the site of the arena.

Howard Lincoln: I think as the letter makes clear we are very supportive of having the NBA back in Seattle, the NHL as well. We had a great relationship with the Sonics before they left and, quite frankly, I was a Sonics fan before I was a Mariners fan. So we would love to see the NBA back.

Our concern is the siting of the proposed NBA arena. The concern we have really is a transportation issue and what we anticipate will be the need to expend significant public funds to mitigate the transportation problems we have there and to build appropriate infrastructure so that these transportation issues are at least eased. Our hope is through this letter, what we are really saying with this letter is, “Please, let’s have a process, a public process that determines the best site for the arena. We simply don’t think the site right next to our parking lot works.”

SD: When did you come to this conclusion, both on the feeling that this does not work with the infrastructure that we have right now and the need to write the letter?

HL: It started with a breakfast Chuck Armstrong and I had with Chris Hansen and Wally Walker. They were telling us where they were trying to get the NBA team and locating it right next to our garage. At that breakfast I said, “Do you understand what the transportation issues are of ingress and egress? This is a major, major problem.” Quite frankly, the impression I had is neither one of them really had focused on that as we had.

As it became apparent that our position was being misrepresented by some in the media we felt it was incumbent upon the Mariners to let public officials know exactly how we felt. That was the purpose of the letter, to try to let public officials understand the tremendous concern that we have in siting this arena in a traffic-congested area. It is important to understand that we are not the only ones that are talking about this. Our letter was preceded by a letter from the Port of Seattle and their letter is even stronger than ours and more specific and detailed about not only the traffic congestion but the loss of of potentially thousands of jobs at the port if they continue to lose business because of this ingress and egress problem.

SD: What impact has the overlap with the Sounders had on game-day and what accommodations have you had to make?

HL: So far it hasn’t been too much of a problem, but this NBA arena and its location is an entirely different situation. The number of Sounder games and the days in which they are played have no relationship to an arena, which is clearly going to be used – in order to be financially viable – at least 200 days or nights a year.

SD: I think there is a misperception because people look at the NBA and NHL schedules and say there could only be this much overlap. Your understanding is there could be significant overlap with events?

HL: If we were talking about six games overlapping, that would be a problem, a problem that could be mitigated. But we are not talking about that. An arena, to be financially viable, is going to have to have a number of events besides NHL and NBA events.

SD: With property already purchased, is there a fear that this is being pushed through?

HL: I think it is fair to say that both the port and the Mariners are aghast at the way that this process so far is being handled. The Mariners went through a year process of site selection. This seems to be focused on at light speed. People have got to step back and say, “Wait a second, will this work?” And the answer is most likely it is not going to work unless the public is willing to spend a lot of tax dollars to build the necessary infrastructure to put an overpass over Lander so that access to and from that NBA arena does not clog up Edgar Martinez Way and does not impact negatively the port.

SD: How much should the public be involved in this process?

HL: The public should insist that their duly elected officials entertain and engage in a process to determine the best site and to take into consideration the concerns of not just the Mariners but the maritime industry, the longshoremen and the Port of Seattle. That port has a huge economic impact on the entire state and to put that port in jeopardy without even taking into consideration the need for extensive mitigation is something that is of great concern to the Mariners and I am sure the port as well.

SD: When it was first learned that there was a push to bring an arena to town, were you under the impression that there would be a number of sites that could be considered?

HL: We were hopeful that other sites would be looked at and seriously considered and we have really been puzzled as to why this is the only place this arena can go. We know that city officials urged Mr. Hansen to locate the new arena at Seattle Center. We know that there is a group in Bellevue that very much would like to see the NBA arena sited there and in those two instances I don’t think we are talking about the kind of public expenditures for infrastructure improvements that we would in the SoDo area.

SD: How much can the Mariners work with the city on this?

HL: I think we have probably the most knowledge of the traffic issues in that area because we have been dealing with traffic congestion down there for the last 10 years and we are certainly open and willing and anxious to work with the city and the port and the maritime industry, but we are very, very skeptical and indeed do feel very strongly that an arena next to our parking garage is going to require the expenditures of substantial public funds to alleviate the traffic congestion. If the city were going to do what they said they were going to do some years ago, put an overpass over Lander, that goes a long way to solving the problem. There are other issues like parking, but this transportation issue is the dominant issue in my mind.

SD: In your mind there are solutions if the infrastructure is accommodated?

HL: I think that if there were expenditure of substantial public funds to put in the infrastructure that was promised in the first place, before there was any thought of an NBA arena, that certainly that would be a very positive step in the right direction.

SD: In the long term how does the addition of a team or teams bode for the community and the Mariners?

HL: I think if we could get the NBA back to Seattle that would be a tremendous thing for everyone. As a long-time NBA fan, personally, I would be the first one to buy tickets. I don’t know anything about the NHL. I haven’t been to a lot of hockey games but I have sure been to a lot of Sonics games and I think it would be great to have the NBA back. I just would like to make sure that it is sited in a place that works not just for the Mariners and the port but also for Chris Hansen.

Greg Johns of Are you concerned about the fan backlash at this time, that there is a perception that the Mariners are trying to throw up a roadblock?

HL: Quite frankly, if people will take time to read the letter and read what it is we are saying, read the port’s letter, I think any reasonable person having read both of those letters would realize that these are serious issues that require serious consideration. So it’s not surprising that there might be folks on talk radio that are trying to stir people up but this letter and the port’s letter was not addressed to talk radio. It was addressed to public officials

SD: What are your hopes with the letter? What is the next step?

HL: I am very confident in having sent this letter to the city and county officials and having seen the port’s letter that our public officials will step back and initiate a process that will look at the issues that are raised by the Mariners, look at the issues that are raised by the port and maritime industry and step back and see if there is a way of mitigating these concerns and I am confident they will set up a process for figuring out the best site, not just for Chris Hansen but for the taxpayers.

SD: In summary, what is your overall concern for this location and what it would do to the Mariners?

HL: I think the biggest concern at the end of the day when you put everything on the table, is the fan experience. If I were a fan I would not want to sit in traffic for an hour and a half to get to a Mariner game because of traffic congestion. That is the concern we have. That the traffic congestion is bad and now it is going to get worse if the arena is sited down there and ultimately fans will say, “Hey, I would rather watch this on my large-screen TV than fight this traffic.” That means our concern is ultimately about our fans and the experience they have in coming to Safeco Field. I don’t think that experience means and hour and a half backed up on I-90.

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