On July 15, 1999, Safeco Field -- a long-sought, baseball-only stadium with a retractable roof -- opens to critical acclaim and some public resentment. The new half-billion dollar home of the Seattle Mariners is the product of a financing plan thrashed out by the state legislature after a different public-private financing plan was narrowly defeated at the polls. Construction is rushed and made more difficult by many design changes. But when the building opens, it is a showcase for the city and a moneymaker for the Mariners.
Unhappy in the Dome
Mariners owners had complained about the Kingdome almost from the time the major league team began playing there in 1977. King County owned the massive concrete building, which had opened in 1976 with the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks as its primary tenant. It was designed as a multi-purpose stadium, but was better suited for football. And, as a series of Mariners owners pointed out, it lacked the revenue-producing features of newer baseball stadiums, putting them at a competitive disadvantage. The Mariners’ Kingdome lease was due to expire in 1996, and the team’s owners were not inclined to renew it. They wanted a new stadium and public money to help build it.
On January 11, 1995, a task force appointed by King County Executive Gary Locke (b. 1950) recommended the public pay about 65 percent of the cost of a new baseball-only stadium on county-owned land south of the Kingdome. The stadium, estimated to cost between $243 million and $278 million, would have a retractable roof and be designed to maximize the team’s revenues. The task force said that without such a stadium the Mariners had no future in Seattle.
Responding to the task force recommendation, the state legislature passed a financing plan that would raise the sales tax in King County from 8.2 to 8.3 percent. The county approved the plan in late July. It would require voter approval in September, however, and polls suggested it had little chance. The Mariners gained support by being in a pennant race for the first time in their history, but it wasn’t quite enough. The stadium-financing plan was defeated by less than 1 percent of the vote.
Forging a Deal
The Mariners owners, led by John Ellis (b. 1928), had said they would sell the team if the ballot measure lost. But with fan interest mounting daily as the team contended for the playoffs, the owners said they would delay their decision until October 31. By October 2, the Mariners were division champions for the first time. On October 8, they beat the New York Yankees in an epic playoff series and were off to play for the American League Championship. Meanwhile, Ellis met with Governor Mike Lowry (1939-2017) and legislative leaders to make the case for a new stadium. While the Mariners were playing the Cleveland Indians for the league title, Lowry called a special session of the state legislature to deal with the stadium issue.
After intense debate, the legislature authorized a tax package to fund a $320 million stadium; the package was then approved by the King County council. The taxes would be on food and drink sold at restaurants, bars, and taverns in King County; on car and truck rentals, and on tickets sold at the new stadium. This time voter approval was not required, a source of rancor among those who opposed the earlier financing plan. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer took a brighter view. In an editorial headlined "Stadium Struggle Ends Most Happily," the paper concluded: "Never in the turbulent 19-year history of the Seattle Mariners has the future of major-league baseball here seemed so secure."
Not for long. A Public Facilities District (PFD) was created to own and operate the stadium and oversee its construction. The Mariners and PFD fought from the beginning, wrangling over countless design details and, with the county council, over the terms of the team’s lease. When council members expressed concern about the Mariners’ insistence that the ballpark be ready for the start of the 1999 season, team frustrations boiled over. On December 14, 1996, Ellis announced that the Mariners were withdrawing from the project. U.S. Senator Slade Gorton (b. 1928), who had been a key figure in landing the team and finding buyers willing to keep it in Seattle, jumped into the fray. With him and Seattle Mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943) pressing for a resolution, terms of a 20-year lease were settled by December 23. The Mariners agreed to delay the stadium opening from April of 1999 to July of that year and to pay for any cost overruns. The county council and PFD agreed to all other team conditions. Shelly Yapp, one of two PFD members who quit in protest, said in a statement, "Cooperation has been replaced by coercion" (Corr, The Seattle Times, 1996).
Thousands of fans, bringing their own digging tools, participated in groundbreaking ceremonies on March 8, 1997. The site was 19.5 acres south of the Royal Brougham Way between 1st and 4rh avenues S. The construction schedule was fast for any stadium, let alone one with a movable roof. Making on-time completion more difficult were more than 10,000 change orders, most of them made by the Mariners. J. C. Brummond, the project manager for general contractor Hunt-Kiewit, said, "This job is like trying to change a tire on a car going seventy miles an hour" (Thiel, 164). By the time the ballpark opened, mistakes, change orders, and cost overruns had added more than $90 million to the tab. The final total of $517.6 million was a record for a U.S. stadium at the time, as was the shortness of its 27-month construction schedule. The team’s owners paid an initial $45 million plus the overruns and received $40 million from a Seattle-based insurance company to call the stadium Safeco Field. An eventual $380 million was paid by taxes.
Blue Skies, Real Grass
Safeco Field was inspired by popular retro-style ballparks built earlier in the 1990s in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Denver. It combined nostalgic touches such as a red brick exterior and hand-operated scoreboard with modern touches such as restaurants, wide concourses, and a giant video screen in centerfield. When the gates opened on July 15, 1999, more than 40,000 saw the Seattle Symphony Orchestra play "Thus Sprach Zarathustra," the theme from the movie 2001: Space Odyssey, while the roof silently and majestically rolled opened. Play-by-play broadcaster Dave Niehaus (b. 1938), who had been with the team since its inception, donned a tux and threw out the ceremonial first pitch. After 22-1/2 years of playing their home games on artificial turf -- and five years of fighting for a new stadium -- the Mariners were treated to real grass and blue skies, not to mention a huge clubhouse and cedar-lined dugout.
The reaction was mostly oohs and ahs. Fans could see downtown Seattle over the left field wall, and Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains from the terrace atop the leftfield grandstand. They had great views of the field from nearly every seat on the building’s three levels. Besides the traditional hot dogs, they could eat food ranging from full sit-down dinners to sushi, clam chowder, and fruit kabobs. And unlike the Kingdome, there were enough restrooms to handle a capacity crowd. The upgrade was dramatic.
"This is designed to be a baseball stadium, to be the best one ever built," said one of the chief architects, Dennis Forsyth of Seattle-based NBBJ, the building’s designer (Bruscas, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1999). A key part of being the best, from the team’s point of view, was premium seating that could boost revenue. Most tickets were relatively affordable -- $5 in the bleachers to $32 for box seats. But Safeco Field also had nearly 1,000 seats that required a charter license fee of $12,000 to $20,00 for 20 years, not including tickets. It also had a section behind home plate called the Diamond Club, where seats with parking and a pre-game buffet cost $195. Most importantly, it had 69 catered and furnished luxury suites priced from $94,000 to $164,000 a season.
The long-sought ballpark quickly proved its value. Attendance for its first two seasons topped 6.6 million, the best in the major leagues. By the end of 2002 the Mariners had paid off their $100 million line of credit for cost overruns, and payment on the public debt was running ahead of schedule. Some of that payback was driven by the action on the field, but a good share could be attributed to the sheer attractiveness of the ballpark.