Joe Coomes: There at Creation

Posted on February 15, 2017

Photography by Kevin Fiscus

Sitting outside a coffee shop on J Street, a few blocks east of midtown, Joe Coomes—a former Sacramento city attorney who serves in an “of counsel” role in the municipal law practice group of Best Best & Krieger—is unequivocal in his praise for the deal that not only kept the Kings in town but also is serving as the most significant catalyst for downtown’s fast-paced renaissance. “The city and the Kings have done everything right,” he says. “It’s the right location that started generating an economic benefit even before the arena opens.”

Coomes has a unique professional perspective on Golden 1 Center and the forthcoming Downtown Commons retail and residential complex. Nineteen years ago, he represented the owners of Arco Arena and the Kings in the public refinancing of the private debt on the team and the arena—a complex deal that kept the Kings here the first time the team was being wooed to relocate. About four years later, on behalf of the city of San Jose, he was the chief negotiator of contracts for the construction and subsequent operations of the SAP Center (also known as the Shark Tank), home of the San Jose Sharks ice hockey team. 

“The mayor and city council agreed to (have the city) pay for the arena because they knew they needed an event center downtown to spark the economy,” Coomes recalls. Coomes says these deals are risky because “any number of things can shut down an arena for a night”—a musical act that cancels at the last minute, a grid-wide power blackout or a natural disaster—and that means lost revenue to the tune of many, many thousands of dollars. In the event of the Shark Tank, the owners took on the risk of the operations.

Coomes was also called in, this time as a consultant, for the city of Portland’s development of the Rose Garden (now known as Moda Center), home of the National Basketball Association’s Trail Blazers.

“In both San Jose and Portland, the downtown location was considered a necessary catalyst to building the arena,” Coomes says. He pulls out a sheet filled with notes and quotes—like this one from Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Stanford University: “A team or a sports facility by itself does not increase per capita income in a metropolitan area.”

“What that means is that you don’t bring in a sports franchise just because of the money it’ll make on ticket and concession sales,” Coomes says. “It’s what it can inspire in its vicinity.

“The fact is,” he continues, “no two cities are alike. And an arena isn’t like a baseball park or a football stadium. An arena is an all-purpose entertainment venue.”

Even if the Kings become champions, he says, “that would be only 60 or so events out of the 365 days a year you want that arena full.” Coomes says this makes an arena, in its own way, no different from a convention center, a community theater or a museum.

“No critical civic or community amenity can be expected to pay for itself,” he adds. “You don’t look at a big beautiful park and say, ‘What’s the return on my investment?’” Instead, Coomes says, “You ask, ‘What’s the value to the community?’ The location and urban context are critical to how you value an arena. And Golden 1 looks like a winner.” The city’s investment is capped, he points out. “The Kings are taking the majority of the risk. And when something proves more expensive than initially estimated, the (city’s) general fund is protected.”

In addition to soaring real estate prices near the new arena, as well as the hundreds of jobs expected to be created, Coomes says, “There’s also a non-quantifiable aspect you have to factor in: civic pride. After 50 years of struggling, the west end of downtown now has an anchor for future development.” The east end, of course, has the Sacramento Convention Center complex, which includes Memorial Auditorium and the Sacramento Community Center Theater.

Coomes, 83, who’s been an attorney for 59 years, says the next challenge for all the parties will be to make sure downtown Sacramento “is accessible, easily navigated, well-lit, safe and clean. Signage will be crucial and I think there should be guides on the street to make sure that everybody’s first visit leads to many more visits.”