May 14, 2010

Replacement Plans Finally Underway for Husky Stadium - Minus Taxes!

The University of Washington is preparing to go it alone in renovating Husky Stadium.

For three years, the UW has tried in vain to persuade lawmakers in Olympia to help it collect $150 million in public money to go toward a $300 million stadium remodel. Now, as early as Friday, it plans to ask developers to come up with a new plan that doesn't rely on any tax dollars.

The new plan is likely to be significantly cheaper — closer to $200 million. That's because the UW may delay constructing a new building for locker rooms and weight-training facilities.

It will also save money because bond rates and construction costs are lower due to the economic downturn, said former Gov. Dan Evans, who chairs the Husky Stadium advisory committee.

"We want it to be as cheap as possible," said UW athletic director Scott Woodward. "We are going to be as creative as we can to make that happen."

Under the new plan, the UW would also have to generate more money. That likely means more premium seating and all sorts of other entrepreneurial ideas — everything from new vendors to the possibility of selling naming rights.

Starbucks Stadium? Costco Field? Husky Oil Stadium? Evans said he doesn't much like the idea of a new corporate name, but he has to be open to the possibility.

His worst nightmare, he said, is that it will be called Waste Management Stadium. Perhaps that moniker might have seemed appropriate back in 2008, when the team went 0-12.

"There's strong opinions about whether or not you put somebody's name on the field, but that may be part of the whole package," said UW President Mark Emmert at a meeting of the Board of Regents on Thursday.

The UW is giving developers just six weeks — until July 1 — to come back with their ideas. That's because ideally the university wants to start construction immediately after the 2010 season and complete the renovations in time for the 2012 season. The plan is to have the team play at Qwest Field in 2011.

"This time we aren't just asking for the lowest bid," Evans said. "We may end up taking one that's higher priced but has more revenue-raising possibilities."

Evans said the basic elements of the remodel remain: replacing the lower seating bowl, removing and relocating the athletic track to allow seating closer to the playing field, lowering the field about seven feet, and renovating the stands.

The "request for proposals" the UW will send out as early as Friday will still include a new football operations building, Evans said, although that part of the project may be pushed back.

Evans said the UW hopes to raise about $50 million in gifts to help pay for the project — a number of donors have already been "softened up" he said — and would issue bonds to cover the rest of the cost. The new facility would have to generate enough income to pay back the bonds.

The downside for many fans is that more premium seating likely will mean less seating at regular prices.

Husky Stadium has a capacity of 72,500, making it the largest stadium in the Pacific Northwest.

Built in 1920, the stadium has been expanded several times over the years. But lately it has been in need of a seismic and cosmetic upgrades. In recent years, pieces of the stadium have crumbled, including a section of steps that collapsed and fell about six feet.

The UW has long argued that King County taxes generated from hotels, restaurants and car rentals — currently used to help pay off Safeco and Qwest fields — should in the future be used to help pay for Husky Stadium renovations.

Such a change would first require action from state lawmakers, who have shown little enthusiasm for the idea.

Both Evans and Woodward said the new proposal doesn't mean the UW has given up altogether on the idea of securing at least some public financing.

However, the proposal may simply confirm to lawmakers what some have argued from the beginning — that the UW needs to find a way to pay for the renovations itself without turning to taxpayers.

Seattle Times reporters Bob Condotta and Andrew Doughman contributed to this report. Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

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