Sacto can recover from bad arena deal

April 24, 2012

By Katy Grimes

Just last week, the news that the arena deal in Sacramento was dead was all the rage. The Maloof family, owners of the NBA Sacramento Kings, backed out of a handshake deal with the City of Sacramento and the NBA, citing questionable financing and revenue projections.

That was a smart decision. Now it’s time to create something on the ugly old rail yard land to benefit the region, as well as draw visitors to the tourism-deprived Capitol city.

Since taking office in 2009, Mayor Kevin Johnson has made no secret of his desire to see Sacramento grow into a “world class city.” While I’ve been a critic of relying on the Sacramento Kings to do this, transforming Sacramento into a destination city is not out-of line. But using basketball to achieve this is dumb and short-sited. And there’s mountains of evidence proving why arenas are money pits.

I’ve also been critical of the “if you build it, they will come” mentality, which public officials seem to love, while spending other people’s money. It doesn’t work.

Sacramento’s Great Park Plan

However, developing city spaces which benefit lots of different people does work. Sacramento’s unsightly 240 acre rail yard could be transformed into a huge, multi-faceted regional park, with an amphitheater, farmers market, agricultural displays, rose garden, soccer fields, ball diamonds, tennis courts, a running track, and playground and exercise equipment.

The Sacramento Zoo, which wants to expand from its current 14-acre home, could be moved to a great rail yard park, or an additional, larger zoo could be built in addition to the small zoo in William Land Park. The Sacramento Zoological Society apparently has the funds for an expansion, but city residents don’t want to give up Fairytale Town, the Land Park Golf Course, the Land Park Pony Rides, or Funderland Amusement Park for a zoo expansion in its current location. William Land Park is 160 acres, and works beautifully with many different venues.

Many residents have recommended that the zoo move out to Sutter’s Landing, but they’d be all alone. As park of a great regional park in the rail yard, the zoo would enjoy a similar situation to what they already have with many different nearby venues, but could expand greatly.

An aquarium would be wonderful – all world class cities have aquariums.

UC Davis could create beautiful botanical and wine grape gardens.

Eventually, an entertainment facility could be added. Or not.

Light rail could run to the park, and downtown trolly cars could make regular stops from nearby hotels.

Sacramento officials have been so obsessed with a “world class arena” deal, that they have wasted precious years and resources with classic small town thinking. This is what happens with trying to play in the big leagues–it’s a big hat, no cattle problem.

Arenas don’t bring in more tourist dollars; they just move around existing money. And, arenas usually require heavy subsidies. In Sacramento, taxpayers want nothing to do with subsidizing an arena, which should be an entirely private-sector deal anyway.

Building a great regional park however, could be done through a non-profit organization, and benefit the region’s residents and draw tourists. Sacramento isn’t ever going to be able to compete with coastal cities however we are located in a beautiful region, are on two rivers and the Delta, we have great weather and are able to live outdoors most of the year.

Why wouldn’t Sacramento officials capitalize on our outdoor assets and maximize the expansive region? Fortunately, we don’t have the California Coastal Commission to deal with.

Bad Arena deal

Even with no backup plan, Sacramento officials and interested parties have continued to push putting $255 public revenues into building an arena, even while suffering under what many say is a $60 million city deficit, cuts to public safety, city services, and an economically devastated downtown, and blighted K Street Mall.

If a great regional park was developed on the edge of downtown, businesses would have many different reasons to move downtown. Residents would have a reason to go downtown again, instead of avoiding it because of the roving bands of crazy homeless people, aggressive parking enforcement, crime, and spotty businesses and restaurants.

City leaders can help

There are so many things which the city could do for downtown if officials would just get the short-sighted, bad arena out of their heads, and start building Sacramento back up by getting out of the way of real job creators:

*cut taxes and get rid of putative business licenses and permits in order to encourage businesses come downtown;

*quit relying on parking enforcement for revenues. If businesses were welcomed instead of penalized for being downtown, revenues would be abundant;

*leave the Maloofs alone and let them run their own business–government involvement is usually the kiss of death anyway;

*open up to ideas about developing the land along the rivers, as well as the rail yard. Again, keep the city out of the way, except only to help businesses and developers navigate the permitting, licensing, land use, planning and compliance issues.

Government is at its best when there is less of it. The only thing the City of Sacramento can do right at this point, is to stay out of the way of those who have vision. The government’s vision is always about controlling, and not about the private sector thriving. Real world class city leaders will do everything in their power to boost the local economy by allowing the free market to do what it does best.

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