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Originally published September 11, 2012 at 8:10 PM | Page modified September 12, 2012 at 7:22 PM

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Arena deal proves Seattle process can lead to progress

This is a victory for Chris Hansen and for a local government often perceived to prefer contrarian politics over progress.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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How ironic is it that Hansen could probably have bought the Kings and dealt with the... MORE
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In the near future, when the Sonics are dunking again and Kevin Calabro is "Good golly, Miss Molly!"-ing again and the Seattle sports scene is whole again, you'll wake up one morning feeling no more pain and make the oddest declaration.

You'll reckon the Sonics' return was an excruciatingly quick process.

Chris Hansen's arena deal and his prospects of luring back the NBA are near the brink of inevitability now. The process is far from over, there are still ways the agreement could fall apart, and relocating a team won't be easy. But the heaviest lifting has been completed, and Hansen isn't too banged up to finish the job. Barring an unforeseen disaster, his dream will materialize in due time. Excitement can commence.

To graduate from misery to mania in only four years is a stunning and poetic achievement worthy of the oxymoron in the second paragraph.

From morons to oxymorons, Seattle is poised to redeem itself in an appropriate manner.

From pain came progress. From misery came novelty. From cynicism came synergy.

That's how this happened, in one tightly composed bundle that doesn't nearly do justice to the complex issues within each of those words.

Three members of the Seattle City Council announced Tuesday that they had reached an agreement with Hansen to revise his $490 million Sodo arena plan to attract the NBA and the NHL. The revamped deal is unprecedented in its combination of financial protections for the city and county and its creativity in forging a more equitable public/private partnership. It's expected to pass through the council's government performance and finance committee on Thursday and receive a required majority vote from the full council later this month.

This is a victory for Hansen and for a local government often perceived to prefer contrarian politics over progress. The modified Memorandum of Understanding makes two things clear: Hansen really, really, really wants this to go down. Not sure I added enough reallys there. Hansen, really, really, really, really, really wants this. And the City Council, led by members Tim Burgess, Mike O'Brien and president Sally Clark, displayed both ingenuity and an admirable can-do attitude in negotiating an arena solution that has the potential to do more than simply appease a private investor and shows that the city learned lessons from the departure of the Sonics in 2008.

If Sonics fans had zero faith in local government after former Mayor Greg Nickels caved and gave Clay Bennett the final OK to load up the prairie schooners and move the team to Oklahoma City, the current group of leaders has done much to alter that image with its savvy.

Clark says Burgess deserves much credit for championing the idea that the council members didn't merely have to say yea or nay to the proposal in front of them. In this deal, there was a third path that would allow Hansen to make a private investment in the city that will soar to more than $700 million after he finances his end of the arena and buys an NBA team to serve as the primary tenant. And on that third path, there was an opportunity to leverage Hansen's dream to improve traffic infrastructure in Sodo and figure out how to breathe life into KeyArena.

The council succeeded by getting Hansen to agree to set aside an additional $47 million — $40 mil for Sodo infrastructure, $7 million for KeyArena — from the tax revenue generated by the arena, which he will also be using to pay up to $200 million in bonds that he wants from the city and county.

After the controversial manner in which it lost the Sonics, Seattle couldn't get back into the NBA mix with its head down and arms dangling at its side. It had to be prideful and come back to the table on its own, sweet terms. That objective has been accomplished after some tense yet fruitful negotiations.

"That's where the fun is, to take a third path, to do something creative," Clark said. "We like to think we set a new bar. There are a lot of things in this that people didn't think we could do."

If all works as intended, this is not merely an arena deal anymore. It's a deal that adds a much-needed community asset — an arena that will attract first-class entertainment options, including the NBA and NHL — while also creating a potential catalyst to solve the KeyArena/Seattle Center problem and the Sodo congestion issue that hinders freight mobility and causes headaches for many vital local businesses, including the Port of Seattle.

The plan is now a truer, perhaps even revolutionary, public/private partnership, especially when you also consider the creative ways the council boosted financial protections to reduce the public's risk from low to minuscule. Hansen is taking on an enormous amount of risk and responsibility, and there should be concern about whether he can create a sustainable business model and build a successful franchise with some of these limitations. But the risk is almost all on him now.

"The process worked," Hansen said to conclude a written statement Tuesday.

Near the end of an excruciatingly quick process, Hansen can smile through the pain of these concessions. He won. And the big, little city that couldn't just did.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @JerryBrewer

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