Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao is taking a big risk with the A’s


Four months after taking office, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao takes a multi-billion dollar gamble: she uncovers the Oakland A’s bluff.

If she loses, Oakland risks being labeled a “minor league city” under her watch, a moniker that could hurt her political career and the city’s ability to attract more development opportunities.

But perhaps for the long haul, exposing the team’s bluff over the $12 billion plan to build a waterfront ballpark is best for the Oaklanders — and not for the wealthy team owners, who will still wake up rich either way .

“People can say X, Y, Z (happened) under my supervision,” Thao said Thursday at Oakland City Hall. “I’m not selling the city of Oakland, though.”

Here’s the backstory: Thao said the A’s and Oakland were the closest they’ve come to an agreement to build a baseball stadium at the Howard Terminal near Jack London Square. It wasn’t a done deal yet, but they were nearing the deadline to finalize the plan. The negotiators planned to join the team in announcing on Friday that they either had a deal or, hey, they tried the best they could but couldn’t come to an agreement.

Then at 6pm on Wednesday, Thao received a call from A’s President Dave Kaval. He informed her that the club had entered into a purchase agreement for a 49-acre lot to build a ballpark in Las Vegas.

Thao’s response: We’re done talking.

“I have no interest in continuing this game,” Thao said Wednesday in response to Kaval’s call. “The fans and our residents deserve better.”

Doesn’t it make sense for you – or for another company – to exhaust all possibilities to achieve your goal? That land deal appears to be another lever the ball club hoped would get more out of the city in the 11th hour of negotiations. Also, it’s just a property purchase agreement. The A’s could always sell the land in Vegas if they struck a deal in Oakland.

Thao disagreed.

“I think it’s about respect and being honest partners,” Thao said Thursday. “We were in intensive negotiations. And if there was respect and transparency, they could have that conversation.”

Andy Dolich, a sports business adviser who served as senior team president from 1980 to 1994 when they competed in three World Series tournaments, doubts the city and club were close to an agreement. If so, he said, then why would the A’s buy land in Vegas?

However, Dolich said that Thao “played that right”.

“Instead of saying, ‘Everything is wonderful.’ “We’re on a parallel path,” she said. “No, we just took our town in the face.” Dolich, co-author of the new book Goodbye, Oakland: Winning, Wanderlust and a Sports Town’s Fight for Survival,” told me.

Thao’s message to the A’s is, “If you think you nailed a deal in Las Vegas, nail it.” And if you don’t, here we are. And, boy, the setting might be a little bit different when we sit down and negotiate,” Dolich said.

Thao said the deal is not dead. The city’s negotiators are unanimous. So does Kaval, although he said Wednesday that “we’re really focusing our efforts on Las Vegas.”

That could also be a flex. Longtime Bay Area residents recall that for years the Giants packed their bags and showed up as the franchise looked for a better stadium deal before building their jewel in the China Basin.

Right now, it’s easy for some to portray A-owner John Fisher – heir to the Gap fortune – as the villain in this scene. Secure. But people knew who he was getting down to: a guy who was born with a full set of silver jewelry in his mouth. Howard Terminal is another real estate deal for him. A way to make more money. Building a baseball stadium would neither succeed nor fail him. His actions should come as no surprise.

It was up to Oakland city leaders to do the best for their community out of a rich guy’s desire to make more money. And this is how Oakland has already done it. The city has secured $375 million for infrastructure improvements around the Howard Terminal — and that money the city won’t have to give back if the deal fails, city officials said Thursday.

But that too is part of Thao’s gamble. She believes Howard Terminal will be expanded even without an A standard. For someone who won his race last year by less than 700 votes over fellow councilor Loren Taylor, Thao doesn’t have much political capital to play with. She has to make sure it works.

Former Oakland City Administrator Dan Lindheim, who nearly landed a deal to build a ballpark at Victory Park in 2011, doubts the Howard Terminal will be attractive without its ballpark centerpiece.

“Who will buy luxury condos backed by Schnitzer Steel?”, which owns a metals recycling facility near Howard Terminal, Lindheim said.

Thao’s bet is closely watched by the organized union, which spent over $700,000 on independent spending during its run. If the Howard Terminal plan fails, it could mean the loss of hundreds of union jobs expanding the ballpark and the surrounding community. Many of them could have employed people for nearly two decades if the facility had been fully expanded.

Losing the Howard Terminal could also mean losing the affordable housing associated with the project — a major need in Oakland.

And the loss of the A’s also affects the people who now work in the Coliseum. While Thao on Thursday described them as mostly “seasonal workers,” a union leader told me these are still the kinds of jobs that support a family.

Still, it’s unfair to blame Thao if the deal falls through. She’s only been on the job for four months. There are a handful of mayors who had the chance to build a ballpark in Oakland but didn’t do it. More than two decades ago, Jerry Brown made a conscious decision to build 10,000 housing units downtown instead of a ballpark because he knew it would revitalize downtown — rather than a building that’s only open for 81 games a year.

But history will show that Thao is the one at City Hall in case the moving trucks wheel the A’s out of town, making it a town without a major league sports franchise.

A minor league city.

Here, Thao – and Oakland – can reinvent that perception. By accepting it.

Perhaps with the loss of its professional sports franchises, Oakland is pricing in its expectations of what it can support as a midsize city with multiple challenges — including a $350 million budget deficit this year.

Perhaps it should include the franchise that wants to be in Oakland: the Oakland Roots, the minor league football team. Coincidentally, a plan to build a field near the Oakland Coliseum was announced Thursday.

The Roots, as my colleague Connor Letourneau wrote, bill themselves as the country’s first “purpose-driven professional sports team.” All players and staff donate 1% of their salary to fight social inequalities. Last year the club worked with Common Goal to launch the Anti-Racism Project. That ethos is what Oakland is all about.

Dolich believes that if the A’s go, focusing on the Roots, or perhaps a professional women’s basketball franchise, is “a perfectly viable way forward.”

“The Roots are the only team that has real roots in Oakland,” said Dolich, who also served in leadership roles for the Golden State Warriors and the San Francisco 49ers. “If you look at how they’ve built their fan base over time, they’ve done it just like others have done in the past. They went out and shook hands and asked people to come along.”

Thao, too, said she’s open to reconsidering Oakland’s relationship with professional sports — a bold statement for any mayor.

“I don’t think this city is defined by Major League Baseball,” Thao said Thursday. “I think this city is defined by its great people, great culture, great weather and many other things. That’s why we’re not going to sell out the residents and businesses of the city of Oakland and give all the money we don’t have to a single major league baseball team.”

It’s a risk, Thao believes, worth taking.

Reach Joe Garofoli: jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @joegarofoli

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