Report: Seattle Center needs help

A recently completed report by the Mayor's Task Force for Seattle Center Sustainability highlights a number of failings at the regional and neighborhood attraction. A lack of operational funding and capital investments are a couple of them, but some of the proposed fixes appear more doable than others.

Central to the money crunch is the KeyArena, a venue former Seattle Center director Virginia Anderson once described as the "economic engine that runs the Seattle Center."

But the Key has been running in the red since the turn of the century, according to the report, which notes that the deficit has been covered by the Center's operating budget.

In a move similar to robbing Peter to pay Paul, the task force recommended the deficit be transferred to the city's books, instead.

And dodging the controversial proposal to have the city's taxpayers pick up the lion's share of the bill for refurbishing the Key, the report simply says that $200 million should be spent on the arena if the Sonics stay, and $20 million it they don't.

The task force notes that budget cuts at the Center have resulted in the axing of 50 staff positions, including those in marketing. The loss of marketing positions, for example, resulted in the Seattle Center Pavilion being taken off the rental market because there weren't enough staff members to book and operate the facility, according to the report.

Routine maintenance and groundskeeping have also been reduced because of staff cuts, according to the report. "We recommend that 20 of these 50 cuts be restored immediately as a first step toward recovering to the pre-2000 budget levels," the task force wrote.

Regional and local transportation woes were also addressed in the report, and the task force worried that projects like the Viaduct and proposed two-way Mercer Street scheme "do not sufficiently consider how to enhance - rather than lessen - the ability of cars, bikes and public transit to reach the Center."

Noting that making capital investments in the World's Fair-era monorail, station and beams was put on hold when it looked as if a new monorail system would replace the old system, the task force recommends that "significant resources be allocated to assure that this vital transportation link to downtown remains operable into the long-term future."

The report also calls for redeveloping the "Center of the Center." That includes the Center House, which still looks like the armory it once was, according to the task force. The report recommends a major reburbishing that would result in a glass roof and a glassed-in entrance on the south side of the Center House. The report does not include an estimate of the cost for the improvements.

Suggestions include the development of a destination restaurant that "spills out of the building to the west with views of the International Fountain and Fisher [Pavilion] lawn."

Michelangelo's Bistro & Bar may not be a destination restaurant, according to a staffer who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the eatery is a corporate operation. But the staffer said the restaurant draws a lot of tourists during the summer, along with visitors during Bumbershoot, Folklife and especially Winterfest.

Also included in the Center of the Center is the Fun Forest, which comes in for some pointed criticism. "The Fun Forest is worn and outdated and has fallen behind in its lease payments," according to the report, which adds that the carnival lacks "relevance and currency." The report also concludes that the Fun Forest should be expected to generate a profit commensurate with its size and location.

Stella Robertson, one of the owners of the family-run Fun Forest, declined to comment on the task force report because contract negotiations are still going on. But she noted that the family spent $8 million between 1996 and 2000 improving the facility.

The Mural Amphitheater also could use some improvement, according to the report. Possibilities include partially enclosing the venue so that year-round commercial-club use would be possible. "A club concept such as this could be a draw for the growing downtown community [of] young adults and also provide earned revenues to replace those that the Fun Forest previously generated for Seattle Center," the report states.

The Mercer Arena is in such bad shape people can't use it, according to the report. A solution to that problem would be to have the Seattle Opera sign a long-term lease for the building, renovate it and use it for administrative, rehearsal and technical headquarter facilities.

The task force also recommends that Memorial Stadium be returned to the city for public use at the Seattle Center. That was a move also recommended in the 1990 Seattle Center Master Plan, which called for underground parking in the bowl. There was also some talk in the mid-1990s about swapping the stadium for land on the parking lot to the east Fifth Avenue North. Nothing came of the discussions when a school levy failed to pass.

The school district also owns the parking lot east of the stadium, and the report notes the lot generates approximately $700,000 a year in revenue.

There was some talk lately of using the lot to build a new skateboard park to replace the one that will be lost when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is built across the street. The school district wasn't interested in giving up the moneymaking lot to make room for a new skateboard park, and it is unclear whether the district would be interested in giving up its interest in the parking lot or the stadium to make the Seattle Center a better place.

Sam Lalley, a partner in the Frontier Gallery at the Seattle Center, wasn't impressed with the task force report. "I didn't like it," she said. "I felt that they were trying to run out the old businesses that had faithfully paid rent here since 1982."

Lalley admits her store is one of those that have been at the Center since 1982, but she complained that the Frontier Gallery wasn't in the loop when the task force was compiling its report. Lalley also said she doesn't think the task force recommendations would help her business at all - assuming they're carried out.

Having the Sonics and the Storm pack up and leave would make a difference because the KeyArena generates so much cash, she conceded.

But Lalley was highly critical of having the city pay more than 90 percent of the cost to fix up the KeyArena. "The Sonics haven't partnered with the Seattle Center as much as they say they have," she said. Instead, the businesswoman added, the arrangement should be like "a proper marriage: 50-50."

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at or 461-1309.

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