Location, location, location

For those of us who want the Kings to stay in Sacramento, it’s been great to see NBA commissioner David Stern get involved in putting together a deal to build a new arena for the team. The man who took the NBA from its dark days of the early ’80s to its present status as a global juggernaut clearly knows a thing or two about marketing, and he’s brought a new level of commitment and sophistication to the arena effort.

He’s aware that, despite widespread community support for the team, Sacramentans are extremely reluctant to commit tax dollars to an arena, as evidenced by voters’ trouncing of two 2006 measures that would have spent tax money to build downtown. That’s why Stern and his staff are spearheading a deal that is being touted as a way to build a new arena for the Kings without public funding. Over the next six months, the NBA and Cal Expo will work out details of a plan that would lease Cal Expo’s 360 acres to a developer who would build a new home for the Kings there, renovate the aging fairgrounds and squeeze in enough homes and businesses to pay for the whole thing without dipping into the public till.

But the proposal comes with hidden costs that the public might well be expected to pay, and it’s worth asking, even at this early phase, whether Cal Expo is really the best location for a new arena or simply the most politically expedient.

First and foremost, building at Cal Expo would place the new facility right in the middle of one of Sacramento’s most notorious traffic bottlenecks, and it’s hard to see how arena traffic could get in and out of the area without substantial—and costly—highway improvements. Unlike Arco Arena, which is accessible from two major interstates, the Cal Expo site is served by the smaller Capital City Freeway, with only one immediately adjacent exit. The area is already subject to extreme congestion during commute hours. It simply could not handle the thousands of additional cars an arena would bring without improvements costing millions—probably hundreds of millions—of dollars, and it’s hard to imagine where that money would come from if taxpayers aren’t called upon to pay.

Cal Expo offers at least one significant advantage: The facility is owned by the state and governed by a board that is eager to cooperate in a plan that would revamp the dilapidated fairgrounds on the cheap. But the disadvantages of shoehorning this project into an area already subject to some of the city’s worst traffic problems could easily prove more important in the long run.

Is Cal Expo really the best site for a new arena? Can a new home for the Kings really be built there without a substantial commitment of taxpayer dollars? Or should we be looking at other locations that don’t pose such obvious transportation problems? We’ll find out in six months, when Stern, the NBA and Cal Expo release details of their plan.