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Arena headlines State of Downtown discussion

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San Francisco Giants President and CEO Larry Baer compared Sacramento’s efforts to build a new arena to the campaign to build Pac Bell Park in San Francisco, telling a collection of businesspeople and government officials that there is “tremendous opportunity” for Sacramento going forward.

Baer’s remarks were part of the 2012 State of Downtown address at Memorial Auditorium Tuesday morning, in which Mayor Kevin Johnson, State Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg and other officials stressed the “why” of building a downtown entertainment and sports complex.

Baer said efforts to build the downtown ballpark in San Francisco were under way as early as the 1960s, with four attempts at using public funds defeated by voters. When ground broke on the project in 1997, it was for a privately funded stadium.

If Sacramento uses the resources of private enterprises such as the Sacramento Kings and other corporations along with some public funds that do not impact the city’s general fund, Baer said, it can get support.

The March 1 deadline to have a workable arena plan to present to the National Basketball Association is less than two months away, and Johnson said he is confident.

“We’re going to figure out a way to pull it off,” he said. “I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been.”

Key to any plan that will have both political will and the will of the people, he added, is making a plan that protects taxpayers, the city’s general fund – which has recently been plagued by shortfalls, necessitating layoffs for the past several years – and ensuring job growth.

“If we want to accept and live up to the identity of Sacramento, you’ve gotta have a strong downtown core,” he said.

Baer noted that the area around Pac Bell Park was markedly different just eight years after the ballpark opened.

The area around the park previously held disused land, warehouses and some residential neighborhoods. Today, he said, it is a hive of mixed-use activity including more residential, ground-floor retail and corporate offices.

Some of the notable corporate offices within 10 blocks of the park include the headquarters of Twitter and Zynga as well as the San Francisco offices of Google.

Another aspect of the arena that has worked well in San Francisco and can work in Sacramento, Baer said, is making use of the planned intermodal transit hub that is slated for the downtown railyards, next to the proposed arena site.

Half of the visitors to Pac Bell Park drive, but the other half take public transit, walk, bicycle or come by boat, he said.

Sacramento City Councilman Kevin McCarty spoke to The Sacramento Press after the event, saying that while the two projects have some parallels, there is still much to consider.

“It really has transformed that area of San Francisco, so if we can get that kind of energy here, of course the devil is in the details, but it certainly shows that a venue like that can make a major difference as far as being a catalyst,” McCarty said.

He pointed out that the San Francisco ballpark was privately financed, whereas the Sacramento plan relies on an expected 50/50 public/private partnership.

“We are still trying to figure that out as far as if it is a good decision for the city of Sacramento,” McCarty said.

One of the major decisions for the City Council will be whether it should lease control of the city’s parking for the next 50 years.

The event was hosted by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, and Executive Director Michael Ault commented on a variety of successes in the downtown core over the past year.

Long-term projects such as bringing cars back to K Street and beginning redeveloping the 700 block of K Street happened in 2011. Additionally, 40 new businesses opened downtown, and the ice rink at St. Rose of Lima Park drew an all-time record of more than 30,000 skaters.

Another example of success in the downtown core was the recipient of the annual Visionary Innovators in Building Excellence (VIBE) award: California Musical Theatre Executive Producer and CEO Richard Lewis.

Ault said in a press release that Lewis and CMT are instrumental in attracting hundreds of thousands of people downtown each year, which provides economic activity.

Richard Lewis, left, receives the VIBE Award.
During his acceptance speech, Lewis pointed out that 2012 will be another strong year, with “Wicked” almost sold-out already – only 5,000 tickets remain to be sold of the 75,000 originally available, and he said they will sell quickly.

Photos by Ron Nabity.

Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Darnell.

Editorial Note: A correction was made to this story after it was published.

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