Public opinion much more complex on arena than media's picture

The results of a poll released last week are being stereotyped as the public wanting a new sports arena but not being willing to pay for it. That simplistic summary misses a great deal.
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No public money: Private financing paid for the San Francisco Giants' ATT Park, which opened in 2000.

The results of a poll released last week are being stereotyped as the public wanting a new sports arena but not being willing to pay for it. That simplistic summary misses a great deal.

A week after The Elway Poll on the proposed Seattle basketball/hockey arena, it seems appropriate to weigh in before some unfounded conclusions calcify into “common knowledge.”

Interpretation of the public attitude about the arena proposal is already falling into the convenient meme that “the public wants the arena, but they don’t want to pay for it.” Neither part of that conclusion is quite accurate. First, there was no majority strongly in favor of the arena proposal. Second, it is being presented as free. It’s not fair to disparage the public for wanting something for nothing when that is precisely how the deal is being presented.

For starters, 30% of survey respondents were “strongly in favor” of bringing professional basketball and hockey to Seattle. Another 24% said they were “favorable” to the idea, “but I don’t feel strongly about it.” Keep that 30% number in mind.

The arena proposal is rather complex and at the time of the survey few people had heard any details. In the survery, we introducted the proposal as follows: “The proposal is that the City of Seattle would buy the land from the investors. The city would own the land and the investors would own the arena. The arena would pay rent and taxes to the City out of proceeds from games and other events at the arena. This money would repay the purchase price of the land.” Some 35% described their “initial reaction” to this proposal as “favorable” and another 25% were “leaning to favorable.”

Survey respondents were generally divided over questions of using the city and county’s borrowing capacity to guarantee the construction, locating the arena near the Port and the other stadiums, and incurring public cost for transportation and other  improvements in the area around the arena.

On the issue of using public funds, there was no even split.  These survey respondents, like Seattle voters on R-71 a few years back, were clear. Given a choice, 62% of these respondents said: “Any new professional sports arena should be privately financed. There should be no risk that any public money will ever be needed to pay for this arena.” On the other side, 32% said: “The benefits of having professional basketball back in Seattle —  plus professional hockey — outweigh the risk that taxpayers might eventually have to pay something.”

At the end of the interview, we posed a series of  “costs” versus “not building the arena at all.” The costs were: 1) “committing taxpayer dollars to the project”; 2) "using local government borrowing capacity for construction bonds”; 3) “incurring public costs for transportation and safety improvements in the area”; and 4) locating the arena near Safeco and Century Link Fields and the Port. For only two of those four “costs” was there a majority on the side of the arena — the location and the ancillary costs for transportation and safety.

Given four choices between building the arena and a reason not to build it, only 29% chose the build option all four times, while 32% said no to the arena all four times.

Bottom line: 3 in 10 voters want the arena and are willing to incur almost any cost to get it (the same number that wants the NBA back in town); 3 in 10 do not want the arena; and 3 in 10 think it might be OK, but not if it costs anything. Only 1 in 10 fit the stereotype of wanting the arena but not wanting to pay anything for it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

H. Stuart Elway

H. Stuart Elway

H. Stuart Elway has been conducting public opinion research since 1975. He directs the Crosscut/Elway Poll.