In this morning’s editions of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Deena Winter had another arena-related column that again demands a counterpoint/fact check. It seems as though I’ve become the de facto media member to provide that service in the last few months, so here we go again.
As a quick aside, I’ve truly liked Deena’s work in covering city hall over the years, and frankly, I’ve relied on her scoops for great show content in the past. A city Lincoln’s size needs to have some dynamic media members that don’t take everything they’re told by government actors at face value and are willing to continue to ask questions, even when they may not be welcome. I credit her for having done that in the years I’ve followed her work.
That said, she’s had several columns about the arena project now that either clumsily imply deceptive acts by people behind the arena effort or seem to misstate some of the admittedly complex legal and governmental intertwining of the JPA, ballot language, and bonding issues. I don’t expect her to spend her column space cheerleading the arena, but she’s got a lot of pull in this community and is becoming part of an epidemic of misinformation surrounding this project. This morning’s column was another chapter in this story, albeit a minor one.
In today’s piece, she noted that one of the architects associated with the Lincoln proposal mentioned an arena project in Sacramento, California as “intriguing” him. She then went on to compare the Lincoln Arena project to the Sacramento project, which she described as being “in jeopardy” because of the developer’s financial issues, likely leaving many readers to conclude that the same fate could easily befall the Lincoln project simply given the similarities between the two.
So, I thought I’d check out these ‘similarities’ and just how correlative they may actually be to the success or failure of the Lincoln proposal. For the purposes of research I not only went back and did a lot of reading about the Sacramento Railyards project and the ensuing arena proposal, but I also spoke with Tony Bizjack, a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, who has been covering the events surrounding the Railyards redevelopment and the search for a new arena for the Sacramento Kings.
-Deena’s article describes the Sacramento railyards project as ”a public-private venture to redevelop 240 acres of abandoned railyards in Sacramento into housing, hotels, offices, a multimodal station and an arena for the Sacramento Kings basketball team.” That’s true, but in reality, this is very different than what’s being considered in Lincoln. The Railyards project is an eight year-old downtown Sacramento redevelopment project to utilize a huge chunk of abandoned train yard land. The project is being driven by a private company, Thomas Enterprises, Inc. Its scope is much bigger than anything Lincoln is considering as the Railyards is the largest urban infill project in the country, and has been reported to be a $5.3 billion dollar project that will continue to unfold over the next 20 years.
-The LJS article indicates the Sacramento Railyards project “may be in jeopardy”. That’s untrue. Despite the fact that the Developer, Thomas Enterprises, Inc., has other nationwide projects that have been hit hard by the economy, the Railyards project received $117 Million in state bonds and economic stimulus funds late last year, which has put it on a fast track. Bizjack told me that the development of the Railyards is making “serious progress” and will go on regardless of whether the city decides to locate an arena within the redevelopment.
-Speaking of the Sacramento arena’s location, the Railyards redevelopment is far from being the already-designated home of a new Sacramento arena, which surprised me after initially reading the LJS article. In fact, the developer’s plan to put the arena in the Railyards is one of seven proposals just now being examined by Mayor Kevin Johnson’s (yes that one) arena task force.
-Deena contrasts the Lincoln arena project where “the city is leading the way” with the Sacramento project, led by the private developer. Again, that’s true, but many will read this and assume this means that since a Sacramento is able to pay for an arena without public money, Lincoln should be able to do the same. In reality, that’s not the case. Thomas Enterprises’ financial proposal for an arena is significantly reliant on Federal dollars, not to mention the profitability of the ongoing larger redevelopment, which was bolstered by state bonds and federal dollars. And it looks like there’s still a lot to be determined as Bizjack told me that the financing of the arena is a “big mystery” at the moment.
-Finally, Deena relayed one portion of a New York Times story that indicated that Thomas Enterprises had a hard time finding an insurance policy to protect itself from liability arising from the environmental cleanup of contamination left behind by the old railroad. That’s true. In the end, however, Thomas inked an insurance policy with AIG way back in 2006, despite the incredible scope of this project and with less information about the condition of the land then Lincoln currently has about its site.
My analysis here may seem to be overly in-depth, given the loose connection that was made between the projects, but it just goes to show how little of the story was actually told. Unfortunately, in the end, I’ve seen how people have built their anti-arena position almost solely on the foundations of misinformation and unreasonable skepticism provided by these columns. Sacramento’s experience with the Railyards tells us virtually nothing about the likelihood of success of the West Haymarket Arena. Unfortunately, however, several people who read the Wednesday Journal Star column will come away with just the opposite impression because of the column’s incomplete and outdated information.