Billions Can't Buy Microsoft Mogul Love
SEATTLE — Paul Allen, the other billionaire Microsoft founder, is finding that money, and good intentions, can't buy love.
A shy bear-sized man with full beard and wire-rimmed glasses, Mr. Allen certainly can afford to do good deeds. He has amassed enough money - an estimated $7.5 billion - to rise to third on this year's Forbes 400 list of the country's wealthiest.
As a businessman, Allen is overshadowed by his former partner, Bill Gates. But the reclusive Allen eclipses Mr. Gates in one key area: philanthropy in his hometown, Seattle.
Allen gave $10 million for a new University of Washington library. This year, his foundations will give $9.8 million to medical research, social services, and the arts. And he's underwriting a $60 million museum to honor rock star Jimi Hendrix. "Paul ... has always felt it's important to give back to the community that has been so good to him," says his spokeswoman Susan Pierson.
But some of his efforts have not been so well received. Take his role as the reluctant white knight for the Seattle Seahawks.
Earlier this year, owner Ken Behring tried to move the football team to Los Angeles, prompting fans, politicians, and civic leaders to run to their favorite local billionaire. Allen agreed to acquire an option to buy the Seahawks, and was hailed as a hero.
Allen insisted he would treat it as a business deal and after months of research, said that to be financially viable, the team needs a new stadium. This past weekend he negotiated a deal with King County officials that will shorten the Kingdome lease and give him $1 million a year in concession sales, money that otherwise would have gone to the county. The King County council must vote on the deal next Monday.
Next, he will go to the state legislature, where he will insist on a new open-air stadium with a price tag of $386 million on the site of the current Kingdome built just 20 years ago. Allen says he'll contribute to the cost, but wouldn't say how much.
Fans' emotions are running high as they try to decide who is the bigger villain - the politicians who will be spending their tax dollars or Allen, who holds the future of pro football here in his hands. At a noisy forum Monday night, some fans praised him, others asked why he couldn't simply buy the team and build a stadium on his own. It isn't the first time Allen's business-like largesse has alienated parts of the public.
Last year, he backed a campaign to raise tax dollars to create the Commons, a city park to rival New York City's Central Park. To help buy land, he gave $21 million in loans that he would forgive if voters approved the proposal. Voters rejected the Commons not once, but twice. Allen has taken over the properties bought with his gift.
"I don't mean to impugn his motives," said Matthew Fox, an outspoken Commons opponent, "but I have to say that Allen's civic mindedness is always with an eye on ... the bottom line." Commons project director Joel Horn says some people have "a cynical view that there's an ulterior motive."
So far, Allen has weathered the storms. His civic involvement inspires editorials of praise and his image as a local good guy even withstood protests - including a picket by an 11-year-old boy - when he bought a private children's camp to convert into a personal retreat for himself and his family.
But Pierson says Allen is fully aware that his reputation may not stand quite as tall if the Seahawks deal falls through. Already many don't understand that he doesn't own the team, just an option to buy the team that expires in July, she says.
They may not understand if Allen walks away from the deal, and blame him if the Seahawks leave Seattle.
"All Paul wanted to do," Pierson says, "was help the city."