Project Arena, Part I: How much time does Sacramento really have?

This begins a three-part series on the entertainment and sports complex effort in Sacramento. Disclaimer: These are my observations on how the arena project is progressing based on recent and past events, as well as my discussions with various figures in Sacramento business, sports and politics.

Project Arena, Part I: How much time does Sacramento really have?

I am asked at least once a day, “What’s new with the arena?”

It is a complicated answer.

With so many moving parts, all working on parallel timelines, there appears to be something “new” each day.

All that really matters is how the financing plan comes together. And so far, it appears the money is starting to fall in line.

“We are closer than ever to finding a way to pay for the facility in a way that protects taxpayers, works for all parties and ensures a true public-private partnership,” Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said yesterday during his State of the City address.

This is why you can expect to see the Kings in Sacramento at least through the 2012-13 NBA season.

As Johnson said, the public arena effort is further along this time than it was all previous 12 attempts combined.

Many are nervously awaiting the sale of public parking garages and spaces. The “deal-breaking” proposal is expected to net the city more than $200-million once the bonds are paid off.

Several companies are showing interest and a select few will soon begin the request-for-proposal process. Those companies chosen will bid on assuming control of the parking garages and spaces. It seems daunting to get this done just one month before the NBA relocation filing deadline.

However, the Maloofs have stated that the March 1st  date is “flexible” and it seems NBA Commissioner David Stern is willing to give Sacramento a longer leash after seeing what Johnson and his Think Big Sacramento team have accomplished in just ten months. The mayor has likely earned the city until March of next year before a move is discussed again. (I also believe further studies on Anaheim or other locations will be done now that there is revenue sharing to help small-market cities.)

Even with the extra time, Johnson will not go public stating the March 1st deadline is workable. He does not want to give opponents a chance to delay or hinder progress on the project.

Expect financing to fall in place sometime in May. The city will have a firm figure on the parking sale, hotels will make up their minds on how much they’ll fork over, Anschutz Entertainment Group will negotiate a price to operate the arena, and the NBA/Kings will come to the table to discuss their contribution. All these pieces need to add up to $406-million or more.

Think Big gets big boost

Peering in a bit closer, it does seem the Think Big Sacramento group is confident the money is there.

While working for “free,” a powerful trio of political consultants is now on board. Aaron McLear and Josh Ginsberg, two aides to former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as Brian Brokaw, who ran Kamala Harris’ campaign for State Attorney General, have joined the effort.

Think Big Executive Director Chris Lehane said after last Thursday’s announcement, “The fact that you have such prominent Democratic and Republican political consultants coming together to form a Purple SWAT team as we head into the fourth quarter of this effort will be a huge boost to move the arena forward…”

Don’t fool yourself – these three consultants were brought in to squash any opposition and spread goodwill about the arena plan.  They’ll make sure the project doesn’t turn into an issue of “Public Safety versus Entertainment”.

With Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel publicly backing what an arena could generate in tax dollars, expect the opposition to have a tough time selling the public-safety angle.

McLear, Ginsberg and Brokaw will be on hand to put out any other fires and maybe even start a few of their own.

Public perception can make or break this deal, but so can timing.

This is why there is no way these top-flight, political strategists sign up for something of this magnitude if it is going to fall apart in 30 days.

Kings look local

With the relocation deadline looming, the Kings appear to be downplaying the hiring of Michael Faust, who served as vice president of public policy for the Sacramento Chamber. He will now be taking on corporate development and relations in the franchise.

This is a position that requires someone with strong connections and relationships to local businesses. You just don’t hire someone to a full-time gig like this if you plan on leaving within the next month. Faust will be used to secure larger corporate sponsorship deals for the 2012-13 season.

Too many signs point to a return next year. Nothing is guaranteed, but a move would be surprising given the astounding progress on the arena project in such a short timeframe. Although the mayor probably wishes otherwise, the financing plan may not be in place by March 1st.  But, the relocation date is no longer the death sentence it appeared to be just a few months ago either.

Listen to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson discuss the arena effort in his State of the City address yesterday afternoon.

Weekly contributor/columnist Rob McAllister is a reporter for KFBK Radio in Sacramento.  You can follow him on Twitter.

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