Sacramento's new downtown arena officially opened for business Friday. Dale Kasler The Sacramento Bee
Sacramento's new downtown arena officially opened for business Friday. Dale Kasler The Sacramento Bee

Marcos Bretón

Connecting the dots on issues, people and news in the Sacramento region

Marcos Bretón

Who to thank for Sacramento’s new arena? The line doesn’t start with Ranadive

By Marcos Breton

mbreton@sacbee.com

October 26, 2016 04:00 AM

UPDATED October 26, 2016 04:26 PM

When you own the largest stake in a venture, you usually get to control the narrative. To the winner goes the spoils, and so it is with Vivek Ranadive, managing general partner of the Kings.

As the basketball franchise prepares to kick off its inaugural season at Golden 1 Center on Thursday, it’s largely been Ranadive taking the bows for a building already transforming downtown Sacramento.

Like a mantra, Ranadive’s staff repeat the words “Vivek’s vision” when describing the new arena erected where Downtown Plaza used to rot.

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But it should not be forgotten that Ranadive likely would be in the Bay Area right now, as a secondary figure in the Golden State Warriors ownership group, were it not for other key people whose names should not be discarded like rubble from the construction site Golden 1 Center used to be.

Keeping the Kings in Sacramento and building the Golden 1 Center could have happened without Ranadive – it almost did – but it would not have happened without Mayor Kevin Johnson and former NBA Commissioner David Stern. It was Johnson and Stern – and they alone – who were indispensable in the years-long saga resulting in the new arena.

Ranadive was a last minute addition to a fledgling Kings ownership group assembled on the fly by Johnson in March 2013. Specifically, Ranadive’s name was announced as the lead investor for the Kings on March 21, 2013. Two days later, Johnson announced that the key to a new downtown arena – a financing deal with the city – was complete.

Few had believed a financing deal for a downtown arena was possible save for Johnson and a handful of others. Johnson had the connections to bring in Chris Lehane, a former aide to Vice President Al Gore, who helped change public perception surrounding the Kings arena failures.

Golden 1 Center became a possibility after Downtown Plaza was sold in 2012 to JMA Ventures. Democratic fundraiser Darius Anderson was a key player in making the connection between JMA and supermarket magnate Ron Burkle. It was Johnson who got Burkle involved in an alternate ownership group that would keep the Kings from relocating to Seattle. Burkle later would bow out, but his presence was critical in convincing NBA owners that Sacramento still was a viable market, and that it was the Maloof family, former owners of the Kings, who were the problem.

Nevertheless, in January 2013, the Kings looked destined to leave town because the arena-financing puzzle seemed impossible to solve. But it was Russ Fehr, former city treasurer and longtime arena skeptic, whose stubbornness eventually led to a deal. The city essentially would mortgage its parking revenue to pay for the bonds that would finance Sacramento’s $255 million investment in the arena.

There was some talk that the city would sell its parking lots and use the lump sum to do the deal, but Fehr was opposed to that. He feared selling a lucrative city business in exchange for an expedient way to finance the arena. So he wouldn’t budge.

That led to a compromise: The city would maintain ownership of its parking resources and use revenue from them to pay for its portion of the arena. That way, Sacramento would protect its assets while cutting a deal that would keep the Kings in Sacramento and revitalize downtown with the Golden 1 Center.

The $255 million the city contributed to the arena was controversial and the subject of lawsuits. But those working on the deal scored several victories that protected the city.

Other cities have been crushed by cost overruns and by having to pay for the upkeep of buildings while the teams reap all the profits. That is not the case in Sacramento. When the cost of Golden 1 Center soared more than $100 million beyond its initial $447 million price tag, it was the Kings who were contractually obligated to pay the difference. It’s the Kings who pay for the upkeep of the building. And it’s the Kings whose lease payments will end up covering much of the debt repayment for the building.

Daniel S. Barrett, a consultant hired by the Kings, was key to making the numbers work, as was John Rinehart, executive vice president/CFO of the Kings.

Kunal Merchant, Johnson’s chief of staff, was involved in virtually every aspect of the push to keep the Kings and the effort to finance the arena. Johnson also tapped Jeff Dorso, a leading land-use lawyer in Sacramento. Assistant City Manager John Dangberg worked closely with Merchant and Dorso, bridging the divide between private interests and public responsibilities. Though he and Johnson had a tense relationship on other fronts, City Manager John Shirey threw himself into the arena deal, a move that put the full weight of city operations in partnership with the private-sector players making it happen.

Local developer Mark Friedman joined the Kings ownership group in 2013, along with Kevin Nagle, primary owner of Sacramento Republic, and Sacramento’s business community got behind the effort.

Friedman pushed the concept of making the Golden 1 Center more than just a building. He championed architect Rob Rothblatt. The idea was to bring in someone not known for designing sports facilities to design a community gathering spot that differed from most hulking arenas.

Mayor elect Darrell Steinberg, while still the leader of the state Senate, crafted critical legislation that prevented Golden 1 Center from being bogged down by lawsuits.

 There are many other notable names: Matt Eirman, the city’s parking director, helped make the initial concerts at Golden 1 Center a success, as did Ken Bernard, Sacramento assistant police chief, who oversees security and safety.

All of these names and contributions do not detract from Ranadive. He wrote the biggest check. He authorized the Kings to spend more on the Golden 1 Center than previously anticipated. Ranadive hired Chris Granger to run the Kings business operations and oversee the arena process – easily the best hire Ranadive has made because of Granger’s wealth of NBA connections and finance expertise.

Ranadive pushed to make Golden 1 what he calls “a technology marvel.” He deserves credit for this, though sometimes his staff makes it seem as if it’s a one-man show.

There are many others who helped to make Golden 1 Center a reality. Some have gotten recognition, such as Stern, who now has a street near Golden 1 Center named after him.

It’s a nice gesture, but why stop there? Why not find some way to commemorate all these names and the others who made Thursday’s home opener possible? Why not retire a jersey in the name of Mayor Kevin Johnson and hang it from the rafters?

The story of how this team stayed, and how this arena was built, is bigger than any single individual. It’s a Sacramento story. That should never be forgotten.