Stadium's Dual Purpose: Just Thinking Out Loud...

Here in the Seattle area, we're constantly hearing about the possible relocation of the Seattle SuperSonics NBA team, all due to the city's reluctance to build a new arena for the team. In a gross over-simplification, the public outcry has been vociferously against paying for a new stadium with tax payer dollars, just as it is all across the country. I believe "corporate welfair" is the words people like to throw around.

Well, I got to thinking. Last week we watched tens of thousands of people flee their homes from an onslaught of wildfires and they just so happened to take shelter in Qualcom Stadium, home to the NFL team, the San Diego Chargers. Two years ago, during Hurricane Katrina, not only did tens of thousands of people take shelter in the Louisiana Superdome, home of the NFL's New Orleans Saints, but the facility was left in tatters. The City of San Diego owns Qualcom Stadium and the Louisiana Stadium/Expo District owns the Superdome. The primary tenants of both buildings are NFL teams owned by very wealthy families yet both stadiums are public owned.

Would the public have been allowed to take shelter in a privately-owned stadium?

Before you answer that, let me ask a follow-up. Should the massive earthquake we all fear someday strike the greater Seattle area, will Boeing open its doors to the world's largest building in Everett and welcome tens of thousands of refugees in out of the cold? Will Microsoft allow those whose homes have been destroyed to spend a few fitful nights on a cot in their hundreds of conference rooms?

Those are rhetorical questions, but I'll answer them anyway. The answer is, of course they wouldn't. Nor would we expect them to. But we would expect to take comfort at Qwest and Safeco Fields, both of which are owned by the King County Stadium Authority. And we would expect to take shelter in those cavernous facilities regardless of who owned them. If Paul Allen had paid for every penny of Qwest Field himself, we would still expect to shelter there. But not in Boeing's factory. Or Microsoft's offices. And what if the private owners of the stadiums said no? Sure, it'd be bad for business for them, but what if they had flashbacks to the wretched conditions the Superdome was left in after Katrina and decided to take their chances with bad PR than risk a costly renovation?

By no means am I saying the public ought to fit the bill entirely for a new stadium or arena on the sole grounds of us maybe needing it as a place of refuge, but I do think these buildings serve a very vital secondary function as a disaster shelter. The public needs to recognize that whether they like sports or not, having those buildings yields a pricelesss benefit to the city as a whole, especially a city situated in such a seismically active part of the country like Seattle. And it's because of this need, among other reasons, that I think the city not only should help fund a new stadium every few decades when necessary, but that it's in our best interest to do so.

The stadium we buy today just might be the only place to turn tomorrow when we have nowhere else to go.


Maarten said...

Interesting direction of argument.

The City of Seattle has a nice indoor sports arena in which they can shelter people in an emergency, so they have no reason to build a new one. If Renton or Bellevue need some shelter capacity, maybe they should pitch in a few bucks, you know, on a pro-rated rent basis. But if I were the city council, I'd first offer Boeing a million dollars for some kind of emergency access to a hangar or two. Boeing might take the quick buck after all, and it'd be a LOT cheaper.

Following your argument, I expect you'll agree that tearing down the Kingdome was a huge mistake. We had a large indoor sports arena and demolished it in favor of an outdoor football stadium that cannot serve as emergency shelter. Should we have invested money in that loss of shelter capacity?

Doug Walsh said...

Thanks for writing, Maarten.

Alas, I said "one of the reasons" I think stadiums should be partially paid for. The other is civic pride. I don't expect you to agree with me, but I think stadiums play a huge role as landmarks in a city and are potentially more recognizable as the face of a city than anything else with few exceptions on the order of the Statue of Liberty and Golden Gate Bridge. The Kingdome was a national laughing stock whereas Qwest and Safeco Fields are routinely ranked among the top venues in the country and believe it or not, there are a sizeable number of people who travel every year to see the great stadiums and follow their teams.

A great stadium not only adds to the fan experience but also helps make it that much easier for teams to attract talent, thereby further increasing "city spirit" and giving the city a face. Just as high schools and college rely on sports to distinguish themselves from one another so do cities.

As for the indoor/outdoor thing, Qwest Field can easily serve as a shelter. There's plenty of indoor space and although we don't have the weather San Diego has, it certainly didn't keep them from housing tens of thousands of people in their outdoor facility.

Besides, the Kingdome was already dropping ceiling tiles and falling apart in the 90's. What I don't agree with is the notion that these structures don't become outdated. Like bridges, roads, and schools, stadiums are part of the infrastructure and have a finite lifetime. It be absurd for anyone in 15 ro 20 years to suggest that either Safeco or Qwest are outdated and need to be replaced. But in 30 years? Possibly.

As for Key Arena, I wish Bellevue or Renton would put up the money and get an arena deal done (and by no means do I think Seattlelites ought to fit the bill, King County as a whole should help put up for it). But not only for the Sonics but so that this area finally had a nice indoor concert venue. Key Arena is a joke. Half the universities in this country have better facilities than Key Arena. For a city like Seattle to have such a poor venue for indoor concerrts and other events (Icecapades and all that crap) is a shame.

Alas Bennet filed for relocation of the Sonics today and is ignoring offers from local buyers who'd like to own the team and keep it in Seattle.

I'm not a longtime resident of this region, obviously, but the idea of a team -- any team -- being bought and relocated makes me sick to my stomach. I'm not a big Sonics fan by any stretch, but a lot of people are and a lot of people have followed this team for 40 years now and while some people may find no use for pro sports in their lifes, for others this is like having Pike Place Market or the Space Needle suddenly stolen in the night.

It sucks.