SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- When you fly into Sacramento, it's hard not to see the optimism.
The city's new $1 billion Terminal B greets you like a shining beacon. The glitzy new building is a vast improvement over the decades old facility I saw the last time here, and includes its own light rail line to whisk passengers to and from the main entrance.
The sun also shines as bright as the grin of Jeremiah Jackson.
"I'm an optimist by nature," he told me as we sat inside an office at Sacramento City Hall. I told him he also made me feel stupid, while casually mentioning his Stanford degree, and graduate work at the Harvard Business School. He's also the project manager for 'Think Big Sacramento,'
which is the coalition of people trying to build an almost $400 million dollar arena on the old railyards here.
"We've got Dodgers and Giants fans, Democrats and Republicans on this board," he told me, "This is the next big thing for Sacramento."
He's likeable, engaging, and smart: A big man with a big personality, who told me how he was brought into the mix by Sacramento's Mayor Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star. He shares Johnson's view, that the group can put together a financing plan for an arena by an NBA deadline of March 1st.
That plan hinges on the Sacramento City Council approving Johnson's idea to lease the city's parking meters, and lots, to a private company. Think Big believes it can raise $200 million of the cost.
"I'm very confident," Jackson told me.
That confidence appears to have rubbed off on the people who cover this town day in, day out.
At a press conference on Thursday, I heard a reporter ask Johnson a question, paraphrasing: "How's it feel to be standing on the likely home of the new arena?"
Another reporter said to me, after learning I was from Seattle, "Have you actually found anyone who doesn't like this deal?"
We heard it from the guy at rental car counter, the officer on patrol, the gate agent at the airport and others.
When we drove around Downtown Sacramento, you can see why. Unemployment is 11 percent. Office Vacancy is near 23 percent. At a Westfield Shopping Mall, which fits in like Westlake Center in Seattle, there are boarded up buildings. The main street leading out of the mall features a trolley/bus line, and little else. The once-vibrant corridor, was largely empty, and the homeless population sat scattered about.
This is where we met Terry Rivasplata.
"I used to be a Kings fan, but not anymore," who told me he had fallen out of love with the NBA after the Kings lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals years ago. "The refereeing is really, really bad, might as well be junior high referees doing their job."
He believes the parking proposal is a bad idea for this city, saying the meters feed the general fund, and the money which goes to police and firefighters. Rivasplata says priorities are twisted. "We need housing downtown. Housing is a driver, not an arena."
Around the corner, we dropped in on Lina Fat's restaurant. Her family has owned "Frank Fat's" since 1939, and carved out a nice profile of eateries across Sacramento. She's a charming, older woman, and an arena proponent.
"We need a space for big conventions," she told me as we sat in a booth near the back of her restaurant. She sits on the 'Think Big' board and sees benefits for the city, and for her restaurants. "We should really have a place to showcase. This is the Capital City of the greatest state in the USA!"
But no one can say exactly how, or who, will pay for it all.
Johnson, as dynamic a public speaker as he was a player, told me Thursday "I can't get into specifics. It's all in negotiations."
In fact, he stumbled a bit, after inviting the local media (I must have missed my invite) to the unveiling of new drawings and sketches of the plan in the railyards. It was quite a scene, as Johnson was also touting efforts with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to revitalize the railyards. But after giving his speech about creating a transit hub, he pointed to the covered sketches, and told the crowd "they're not quite ready yet" and said the unveiling wouldn't happen. Two men, standing next to the covered easel, lifted it up and walked it to a waiting car.
"We wanted to do it the right way, it wasn't exactly right yet," said Johnson after the strange non-announcement.
I pressed him hard on Seattle, as did other reporters. He now knows there is competition for the Kings franchise, and this arena issue has been one of the central focuses of his mayoral term.
"We don't want to be like Seattle and lose our team," said Johnson, who spoke about visiting Western Washington a couple times in the last month or so. "I picked up the newspaper and went to the sports section," he recalled, and then realized, "They don't have a team. They haven't recovered."
"We don't blame them for putting together an ownership group and build a new arena, but we don't want it to be the Sacramento Kings."
The Maloof family, which owns the Kings, will have to pony up for the project, and have stayed silent about how much they can afford. They are believed to owe millions of dollars to the NBA, Sacramento, and have recently sold off other interests. Johnson is banking on them to pay upwards of $80 million of the railyard complex. We were told unequivocally they would not talk to us. In fact, the Maloof seats had a security guard at the game Thursday night at Power Balance Pavilion.
That's where the Kings play now, and let me tell you, it was rocking when they played the team formerly known as the Sonics. One writer called it the best crowd in years. Our photographer Jeff Christian had trouble editing our piece because of the cheering, stomping fans. The sellout crowd wanted to make a statement before a national television audience, and perhaps this little crew from Seattle.
Our presence caused a little uneasiness. We were interviewed by the local FOX, ABC, and CBS affiliates with questions including "Why are you here?" and "Is this for real in Seattle?"
The arena itself is, shall we say, open to interpretation about it's longterm feasibility. The former Arco Arena is 15 minutes from downtown, surrounding by a giant parking lot, in the middle of farmland. It opened in the mid-80's, and is loud for basketball. But new arena proponents will tell you, it is not good for concerts, not a good location, and doesn't provide the amenities of modern arenas. I'm no expert of kitchen and dining options in arenas. But I will tell you I saw what might be the smallest professional sports locker room in history. The Oklahoma City Thunder were cramped into a room, which was smaller than almost any high school locker room I've been in. It was so tiny, it was awkward to do anything with a camera.
Thunder forward Nick Collison still lives in Seattle in the off season. "I still get a lot of people who tell me they miss the Sonics," he told us during a pre-game interview, "I would like things to happen for them."
But Tobin Halsey hopes it's not the Kings. He was at the arena on Thursday night, as is the director of "Small Market, Big Heart", which chronicles the franchise's uncertain future. I saw a few minutes of it, and can tell you he and his fellow producers (including Blake Ellington) have done a wonderful job on the film. They consulted with Seattle's "Sonicsgate" producers when putting it all together, and have had a couple showings in Sacramento.
He got season tickets with a buddy while he was putting himself through college in the early 90's, and now believes the Kings are "part of our identity." He told me how his 8-year-old daughter Siena has collected money at school for a new Kings Arena.
Halsey told me he still believes the city has a good shot, and a lot of momentum to get a deal done, but admits "we get in our own way sometimes."
The filmmaker, who has family in Everett, admits he followed the Sonics departure, and recent news closely. "I don't think anyone would fault Seattle for wanting a team. I totally understand what it means to have a team, and have it leave. Seattle is completely deserved of a team, they're fantastic."
Jackson even admitted, through the smiles, “I think it makes sense that there is so much excitement in Seattle over getting another team. That makes total sense to us here.”
He continued, “We know Seattle, and Anaheim are lurking, and if the city is not able to get a deal done, those cities will be in play.”
But Jackson told me confidently, if the Maloofs can’t contribute a significant portion to the project, there “are a number of other ownership groups interested in keeping the team in Sacramento.”
“The Ball is in Sacramento’s court, and it’s a good place to be to control your own destiny.”