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Kings Arena Q&A: Ryan Lillis of The Sacramento Bee

We checked in with Ryan Lillis of The Sacramento Bee to get an update on where things stand with the downtown arena.

The one and only Ryan Lillis of The Sacramento Bee was kind enough to join us for the next installment of Sactown Royalty's ongoing Q&A series on the efforts to build a new arena in downtown Sacramento.

Lillis has covered the city of Sacramento and the happenings at City Hall for the Bee since 2008. He has done a tremendous job, along with his colleagues Dale Kasler and Tony Bizjak, of covering the relocation/arena saga in recent years.

The preliminary concepts for the development surrounding the arena in downtown Sacramento were recently released [a 250-room hotel, 550 residential units and more]. Talk about what these development ideas do for this project overall.

John Dangberg, the assistant city manager at city hall, who has kind of been one of the point people on all of this, described this as a major step forward. The Kings have submitted an entitlement application. This is the footprint of what they want to do at Downtown Plaza ... it is a very detailed footprint for the six square blocks that is Downtown Plaza, and it's just an enormous redevelopment project with the arena as the centerpiece, obviously, but it's an enormous project with office space an entertainment venue and residential space ... probably in the next month or two, we'll start to see drawings of what they intend to actually build there vertically.

I think you'll also see the Ranadive group and the Kings take more of a lead role in the overall development of Downtown Plaza, and not just the arena.

Was there anything that was surprising to you within these plans?

No, we knew the scope of what they intended to do. We've known for a few months in terms of the overall space, square footage. So there wasn't a ton that surprised us and also the Kings have been, I think the Kings have been very public with what they want to see there and what they want to do with the Downtown Plaza site in terms of creating a kind of grand public plaza along what would be K Street and lining J Street with office space and adding an entertainment element to all of it - these are the things that the Kings have been talking about for months. And you're going to see even more of that public outreach here in the next weeks. They're going to go to the planning commission. They're going to get feedback from the planning commission, which is very important because the planning commission are the people who the city council and City Hall trust as the experts to provide feedback and guidance on design standards and planning standards in the city of Sacramento.

So they're going to go to the planning commission here in a couple of weeks, get that feedback - that's a public meeting - there's going to be another city council meeting here in a couple of weeks where you'll hear a little bit of an update on the financing plan and just a little bit of a progress report. So there's going to be a lot of opportunity here for the public to see what the Kings are up to.

I spoke to John Dangberg recently and it sounds like the designs of the exterior of the building are going to be nailed down by next month. Can you talk about what the city and the Kings are trying to accomplish with the overall look of the arena itself?

Mark Friedman keeps saying he wants it to be a place where people just want to naturally gather. I've heard him use the term, he wants it to be like ‘Sacramento's fireplace' - a place where people just want to be, whether there is a game going on or not. So not a big box in the middle of downtown that people only go to for a select number of nights per year. He wants it to be a place where on your lunch break, if you work downtown, you are going to go sit outside this arena and have lunch even if the building itself is completely empty ... just walking by you have a physical connection to it, you can see inside of it so there's going to be a lot of glass, you are going to have huge gatherings outside.

Let's talk about the deal itself. When it was approved earlier this year by the city council, a lot of people said this deal is actually a better deal for the city in various ways than the previous deal between the Maloofs and the city. Can you expand on that?

Yeah, I've heard that from a few people. You've even heard that from a couple of the city council members who have opposed the project and I think a lot of that is based on the fact that you have a private ownership group that is contributing more to the project than the prior ownership group. I think people feel a little more at ease with the general fund protections are some guaranteed revenues that will be going to the city from the Kings. I think that, and it's pretty technical, but the way that the whole parking revenue bond system was restructured from last year where at the beginning they were talking about basically outright selling or leasing the city's downtown parking to a private vendor ... here, the city will maintain control of its parking operations. You know, the concern was if you let somebody else come in and control your parking you have no control over the rates, you have no control of the capital improvements made to your parking. You can set certain standards in the contract but the more standards you set the worse off the deal is for you.

Here, the city would still control the parking, they'll control the rates. I'm going to tell you flat out that I fully expect parking rates to go up downtown, but I think, well I know for a fact that parking rates were going to go up downtown anyway. The city's parking consultants have been telling them that the city of Sacramento undercharges for parking downtown, so that was inevitable.

There's a lot going on right now with the pro and anti-arena groups, can you bring us up to speed on where things are at with those efforts?

There are two groups collecting signatures to place a measure on the June ballot that would require voter approval of any subsidies for sports projects. So it's not an up or down vote on this arena, however, if that ballot measure qualifies for June, goes to the June ballot and if that measure is approved in June, then the city would have to hold a vote probably in November, on this arena project.

They're still collecting signatures ... they have the deadline of mid December, Dec. 10 to turn in their signatures. They need 22,000 signatures from city voters. They want a buffer, they are doing an internal validation process and so they have got just a few weeks left to get those signatures, and if they do end up qualifying it then there will be, I imagine, a very intense campaign on both sides.

And then there is obviously the other side, the group that is collecting signature removals, and they are at over 10,000 signatures, correct?

Last we heard, they were at 10,000 petition withdrawal forms from people who said they would like their names removed from petitions that they've signed. So what will happen is, they've turned in those forms, the pro-vote group will turn in their petitions. There will be a count. The city clerk will first look to see do they have the numbers? And if they do, then they will move it on to the county and then the county will do very thorough counting to see if they have the correct valid number and they will crosscheck that with the withdrawal forms handed in by the group, and if a name appears on both, their name will be taken off the petition.

Sometimes these things on paper, they have the numbers they need and they don't end up qualifying. In fact, just two years ago, a group that is involved in this, one of the group of nonunion contractors, they tried to get a ballot measure on the ballot in Sacramento that would ban project labor agreements in the city. They handed in well above the raw number of signatures they needed but when it got to the count - the actual validation process at the county - they didn't have enough valid signatures and the measure ended up getting tossed and never made it to the ballot. So that does happen. Who knows if that will happen this time.

Can you briefly touch on the development you are seeing downtown and some of the interest from businesses related to the arena?

Yeah, it's been reported that there seems to be a renewed interest in a lot of property downtown. The 1000 block of J Street, a developer is interested in that after years of it just being empty, you know, just desolate ... you've got some people on K Street really holding their breath here to see what happens with the arena. Honestly, I do hear it fairly often from people who are thinking about building something, they say ‘well if the arena goes through,' and so people are just really anxious about this.

I think as important for the city is getting people to live downtown. There's an ongoing debate, and it's been happening in Sacramento a long time, do you invest in the amenities first and then bring people, or do you bring people first and then build the amenities? There are some people who think the city should be focusing more on building housing downtown and not the arena and other people that say, ‘well, you need to give the people a reason to live down there.' But there is definitely increased interest in building downtown.

Dale Kasler had a great piece on Vivek Ranadive over the weekend about his company Tibco. What are your impressions of Vivek? Sacramento hasn't really had a Kings owner like him before.

He's very 21st Century I guess as he would say. I thought Dale's piece was just really interesting. I don't think people realize how much Tibco, a company that I had never heard of six months ago, how much of an impact it has on people's daily lives. He's definitely an interesting guy and the Maloofs were interesting guys, and so from my point of view, I like them to be interesting, obviously. I think there's definitely a honeymoon period that the fans are still in for sure, and they will be for some time. And if the arena goes through, and all the development goes through at Downtown Plaza, that's something that will last a really, really long time.

Lastly, do you think you could play small forward?

No, although actually for my size I am a pretty good rebounder because I was a triple jumper in college. But, you know, I can't hit anything past like 12 feet with any kind of consistency so I would be a terrible small forward ... I had like a 37-inch vertical at one point in college, I dunked twice even though I'm like a six-foot guy, but that was 20 years ago so a lot has changed since then. I don't think I am the answer to small forward.

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