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Tourism leaders feel burned by Safeco Field funding compromise

Tourism advocates are crying foul over legislation to give the Mariners millions in taxpayer money for improvements to Safeco Field.

Tourism leaders say they’ve been struck out of a compromise deal to fund improvements at Safeco Field.

The Mariners asked for $180 million in lodging taxes to fund infrastructure improvements at the baseball stadium, after striking a term sheet with King County Executive Dow Constantine and the Public Facilities District earlier this year.

A King County Council committee amended the terms paring down the team’s request to $135 million. The compromised plan also eliminated most of the revenue slated to go to tourism promotion.

Also see | Compromise plan would give Mariners $135 million for Safeco Field repairs

“We're not happy. We feel a little like it's a disrespect to the industry,” said Tom Norwalk, the CEO of Visit Seattle.

The original term sheet called for $109.4 million in future revenues, over 25 years, to go to organizations like Visit Seattle and Seattle Southside, which serves as the regional tourism authority for cities like Tukwila, SeaTac, and Des Moines.

Credit: Bernhard, James

The compromise now limits the future tourism funding to $8 million. Instead of tourism, the Council has reallocated the funding stream towards affordable housing.

“It's a shame now for us to be pitted against our friends at the Mariners, the housing advocacy groups,” acknowledged Norwalk.

Norwalk says he advocated the Mariners get some funding, but it’s also needed for his organization to attract future conventions, sporting events, cruise ships, and airlines. Norwalk says there is stiff competition for convention dollars at a time when the State Convention Center in downtown Seattle is expanding.

Also see | Mariners strike deal for another 25 years at Safeco Field

“Denver is in play, San Francisco always usually in play, San Diego in play, we're competing with cities with stronger funding,” said Norwalk.

He noted that the city won’t always sell itself and the film industry is a cautionary tale. Seattle used to be a haven for productions in the mid-90’s with films like “Singles,” and “Sleepless and Seattle.”

Vancouver, British Columbia and Oregon started offering greater film incentives than Seattle and Washington state, and now attract more productions than the Emerald City.

“If you don’t nurture it, it eventually goes away,” said Norwalk. His office claims local tourism supports 76,000 jobs and 20.8 million overnight visitors per year.

Also see | Mariners show why they believe Safeco Field needs millions in repairs

“I find it very frustrating, disappointing,” said Katherine Kertzman, the President and CEO of Seattle Southside, who claims the funding has been “wiped out, swept away.”

Kertzman says, as does Norwalk, that the Mariners “are a friend of the industry, but that’s $135 million, I preferred the $25 million so there would be funds available.”

She said the sudden change in amounts to elected leaders is reneging on a promise.

“We were promised by the county they would invest in destination marketing, we just want them to follow through,” Kertzman said.

The compromise plan was approved 5-4 in committee, made up of the entire nine-member council. A bid to put the item to voters failed 5-4.

A full King County council vote is scheduled for Monday.