SBJ/20090907/SBJ In-Depth

Johnson has unique perspective on Sacramento arena talks

As a 13-year NBA veteran, Kevin Johnson appreciates the value a professional sports team adds to a city.

As the first-term mayor of Sacramento, he also understands the budgetary realities that make public funding of a new sports facility nearly impossible, at least in today’s economic climate.

As mayor, Johnson is trying
to work up a deal for the Kings.

But as the chief executive of a city trying to keep its lone big league franchise — the NBA’s Kings — from leaving town, Johnson appears to have come no closer to reconciling those notions than anyone else.

He has vowed to meet with the Maloof family, the Kings’ owners, at least once a month until a new arena deal is made. “I realize that without a plan, if I sit on my hands, the Sacramento Kings will move elsewhere,” he said.

Johnson acknowledges that plans for a private/public mixed-use project have stalled. “Sacramento is probably the case study for this,” he said. “We were looking for a master developer to come in and do 350 acres of city-owned land. But because the economy is so challenged, so strained, no developer wants to come in and potentially wait many years for a return.”

Unlike many big-city mayors, who haven’t seen pro sports from the other side, Johnson doesn’t expect the team to fully fund its own facility. “There aren’t many owners who can do that,” he said. And he acknowledges that the current facility, which dates to 1988, needs to be replaced.

“I have to do a much better job — and we, as a city, have to do a much better job — of educating the public of the benefits of having an NBA franchise in the city, and the loss if the franchise were to leave,” Johnson said.

That doesn’t translate into ready money — but it’s a start. “The era of new facilities in California is not over,” he said. “We’ll find ways to continue to be competitive.”

— Bruce Schoenfeld

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