Who would have thought that in the year of Occupy protests and anti-fat-cat rhetoric, liberal Seattle’s agenda would be hijacked by a multimillionaire San Francisco hedge fund manager? But so it was. An unknown guy named Chris Hansen spun the civic debate by proposing to invest around a half-billion dollars in building a new basketball/hockey arena in SoDo (he’s already sunk about $60 million into the land). What did that portend? For one thing, a salving of the civic wound left by the 2008 departure of the Sonics. While the city faced ongoing debates over schools, police and transportation, Hansen’s proposal added something fun to the mix, a possible win-win deal that would boost our pro-sports scene and give us all something to cheer about. The new twist: It would cost the taxpayers maybe $200 million, and the city and county might even walk away with a profit.
After a few seconds of euphoria, the Seattle process kicked in. What sounded like a slam dunk got complicated, and the usual civic chorus of Debbie Downers spoke up. The Mariners complained about a new arena disrupting life in the stadium district; the Port of Seattle said the arena would gridlock “freight mobility”; the Citizens for More Important Things argued that NBA franchise investors ought to put up 100 percent of any arena funding and keep the taxpayers out of it; and others worried that a new sports facility in the industrial zone would tip the balance of Seattle from a blue-collar burg to yuppieville. The proposal turned out to be less risk-free than first advertised, and like most Seattle ideas, it became weighed down with the idea that The Fate of the City was at stake.
Hansen had to flash more than cash: he had to show he cared, and he did.
Hedge funder Hansen had to flash more than cash: he had to show he cared, and he did. First, we had to get to know the guy. What was his motivation? Making money obviously, but Seattle would never accept anything quite so crass. Turns out, Hansen is a local boy—grew up in the Rainier Valley, graduated from Roosevelt High—and a big-time fan of the classic Sonics. Hansen later trotted out some partners whose local cred was unquestionable (Erik and Peter Nordstrom, Steve Ballmer). Sure, it’s about making money, but it’s also about a guy who bled green and gold wanting to do something good in his hometown. In the end, the Seattle City Council voted 6-2 to back the arena.
Like it or not, Hansen became a civic player in 2012. He was welcomed as a savior by basketball boosters and brought hope to a town described by Slate magazine as “the saddest place on earth to be a basketball fan.” Sports radio threw its weight into the debate, and guys who usually talk about suds and Seahawks were suddenly engaged in the details of public bonding capacity, how tax dollars ought to be spent, and ranking members of the City Council as if they were draft-day prospects. The soft-spoken Hansen attained hero-of-the-moment status. At a pro-arena Westlake rally, one fan spoke for many when Hansen took the stage: “You’re the f**kin’ man!”