Kings' arena funding campaign going to long-shot vote

10/20/2006 - NBA Sacramento Kings

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Any visitor to Arco Arena can see why the Sacramento Kings need a new home.

Built on the cheap in a sheep pasture and rushed open in 1988 as the home for the only major pro sports team in California's capital, Arco is now a drafty barn when compared to the NBA's state-of-the-art pleasure palaces.

Fans sit in uncomfortable seats on weathered wooden floors in the lower bowl. The concourses are sparse and a bit dingy, while the single tier of cramped luxury suites isn't exactly the most luxurious spot in town.

And fans don't even see the truly outmoded aspects, such as the visitors' locker room -- a comically spare dungeon with coat hooks for lockers, a cramped shower and absolutely none of the amenities common to the profession.

Yet the latest strategy to create a new home for the Kings seems doomed to failure. After months of contentious wrangling and bitter public debate, most polls suggest Measures Q and R -- ballot initiatives which propose a quarter-cent sales tax increase to help raise public funds for a downtown arena and other projects -- will be voted down Nov. 7 in Sacramento County.

Local business owners and taxpayers' groups complain about the iniquity of financing part of a proposed arena complex in the old downtown Sacramento railyard for the billionaire Maloof brothers' team. Meanwhile, the Kings' owners are still haggling with government officials over control of parking spaces and zoning around an arena that might never be built.

The Maloofs already walked out of negotiations last month, angry with the pace and tenor of the proceedings in a city they put on the international sports map -- and there's a chance they could walk out of Sacramento altogether.

Looming over the complex negotiations is the reality that the Kings must have a new arena to keep pace with the rest of the NBA, both in revenue and reputation -- and if they don't get it, other cities will come calling. The casino-owning Maloofs are virtual royalty in Las Vegas, while Anaheim, San Jose and Kansas City could be possibilities with the right public momentum.

"It definitely affects us as players, because we love it here, and we want to stay here," Kings guard Kevin Martin said. "This is a great building, because it's where I got the chance to play in the NBA. But when you go around the league, a whole lot of teams have fancier places."

As with anything regarding the Kings, the discussion of the arena proposal has consumed the public discourse in Sacramento during recent weeks. Not even the race for governor inspires as much talk-radio chatter or water-cooler discussion.

Critics of the measures, who have been vocal and demonstrative about the need to channel tax funds into social works, gathered at a shuttered downtown restaurant Thursday to criticize the measures.

They've seized on every chance to paint the admittedly high-living Maloofs as corporate-welfare chasers, even lampooning their decision to star in a commercial for the Carl's Jr. fast-food chain in which they're seen chasing their burgers with a $6,000 bottle of wine.

"While the billionaire Maloofs are out living the high life in Las Vegas ... local business-owners are being redeveloped out of town," said Katherine Maestas, an arena-plan opponent who runs a consulting firm.

But supporters of the measure -- who include the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and many local businesspeople -- believe the naysayers are shortsighted and provincial. They point to ample evidence that downtown arenas spur job growth and business expansion while providing a civic point of pride and boosting the Kings, who have become the Sacramento Valley's public face to much to the nation.

"It seems to me that we have a unique opportunity to revitalize downtown Sacramento and create an urban identity that will be a benefit to generations of Sacramentans," said Darrell Steinberg, a state Senate candidate who spoke in favor of the measures in a recent public debate.

"I urge people, when they think about this vote not to ask what the private sector is getting, but what are we as the public getting for the future of Sacramento," he said.

Only money could have sullied Sacramento's love affair with the Maloofs, who purchased a majority interest in the Kings in 1999 and
immediately transformed a mediocre, boring club into one of the NBA's most interesting, exciting franchises.

Sacramento has reached the playoffs in eight straight seasons despite undergoing wholesale changes since its heyday with Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic. The Maloofs fired coach Rick Adelman last summer after eight straight playoff appearances, and new coach Eric Musselman leads an untested new team built around volatile forward Ron Artest.

A new arena could change the Kings again -- or the ballot measures' defeat could move the Kings closer to the road out of town.

"I hope it passes, because I don't want to move," guard Mike Bibby said.