Sonics want $300 million; some legislators roll eyes
Sonics owner Clay Bennett wants at least $300 million in taxpayer money to help pay for a new arena that could cost as much as $530 million...
Seattle Times staff reporter
OLYMPIA — Sonics owner Clay Bennett wants at least $300 million in taxpayer money to help pay for a new arena that could cost as much as $530 million, but the request already has drawn skepticism from some key state lawmakers.
Bennett revealed the cost estimates in a letter to Gov. Christine Gregoire and legislative leaders Thursday before Sonics representatives pleaded their case to the state Senate Ways and Means Committee.
The letter also said the Sonics expect financial help — in addition to the $300 million in taxes — from whatever city gets the new arena.
It was the first time Bennett has put a price tag on the new arena he says is necessary for the Sonics and Storm to remain in the state. But Bennett's letter did not answer two key questions: where the arena would be built and how much Sonics owners are willing to contribute.
While the Sonics found a mostly sympathetic audience in the Ways and Means Committee — chaired by their chief legislative ally, Sen. Margarita Prentice — other legislative leaders were skeptical.
Democratic House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler of Hoquiam rolled her eyes when she heard the price. She said taxpayers have grown weary of building stadiums for multimillionaire athletes.
House Finance Committee Chairman Ross Hunter vowed to hold hearings on whatever tax package the Sonics put forward. But he said he doubts the owners will find much support in the Legislature.
"They're going to need a champion down here, and so far I haven't seen one," said Hunter, D-Medina.
"I would love to see this thing in Bellevue. That would be terrific. But I'm not convinced at all that we should be putting state money into it."
"Not a priority"
Some Republicans sounded equally unenthusiastic. "It's just not a priority," said Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.
Bennett said the team's architects and consultants estimate the 18,000-seat arena itself would cost between $340 million and $360 million and that land, parking and infrastructure could add $170 million to the price tag.
While saying Sonics owners will pay part of that cost, Bennett wrote that he could not yet provide a number because owners are still calculating how much money they would make off the new building.
"My obligation to the Sonics ownership group is that I do not enter into any transaction that does not give us at least a fair chance to earn a reasonable profit over time," Bennett wrote.
The Sonics' previous owners, a mostly local group led by Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz, failed to get legislative support during the past two sessions for a $200 million expansion of Seattle's KeyArena.
During Thursday's briefing to the Senate panel, Sonics representatives touted the new arena as a multipurpose building that would host conventions, hockey games, concerts and other events.
"It would be a building that certainly would be beneficial to all the people of the Northwest, so it's not just the Sonics," said Lenny Wilkens, the former Sonics player and coach who recently was named a team vice chairman. Bennett was in the Seattle area but did not attend the meeting.
Wilkens' testimony and Bennett's letter both cited Denver's Pepsi Center, which was recently named to host the 2008 Democratic National Convention, as a model for the type of large event-drawing facility the team wants to build.
But arena critics blasted that example, noting that the Pepsi Center was built almost entirely with private money. They said lawmakers shouldn't waste their time with the Sonics when the state has other pressing issues, such as health care and education.
"The public has made itself crystal clear over and over again that the public has no interest in tax subsidies for wealthy sports stadiums," said Adam Glickman, a spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 775, which helped finance a Seattle initiative approved by voters in November that restricts the use of city taxes for the benefit of professional sports teams.
Two recent polls also have shown overwhelming opposition to arena subsidies in King County and across the state.
Bennett has made it clear he'd prefer to avoid a public vote on the arena plan, which would extend the King County taxes on hotels, restaurants and car rentals used to pay for Safeco and Qwest fields and the Kingdome. That would require approval of the Legislature and the King County Council.
Selecting a site
The biggest decision remaining for the Sonics is where the new arena would be built. The two sites under consideration are 14 acres on Bellevue's "auto row" and 21 acres of Boeing land at the south end of Lake Washington in Renton.
At Thursday's Senate committee briefing, it appeared as though Renton might have the upper hand.
Renton's economic-development director, Alex Pietsch, sat alongside Wilkens at the hearing-room table and spoke in support of the Renton site. No Bellevue representative was at the table, although several were in the audience.
But Sonics spokesman Jim Kneeland said that doesn't mean the team favors Renton over Bellevue. Prentice, a Renton Democrat, had personally invited Pietsch to sit at the table.
The Sonics are waiting to see which city offers the best deal before making a final decision.
In his letter to Gregoire, Bennett said either Bellevue or Renton would have to make an "investment" in any new arena, and that the next move in the decision-making process lies with them. Each city "now must make independent decisions about whether it is in their interest to proceed," Bennett wrote.
Sonics officials were vague about what that meant Thursday, but Kneeland said the team wants the cities to offer some kind of financial assistance with parking and road improvements.
Renton more aggressive
Officials in both cities have generally supported attempts to lure the Sonics, but Renton officials have more aggressively courted the team as part of the city's ambitions to lure upscale development. However, Pietsch said Renton has made no specific guarantees of city support for an arena.
Bellevue Mayor Grant Degginger said his city has been waiting for the detailed arena plan, including a preferred site, rough plans for the building and some financing options, promised by the team months ago.
When Bennett met with Bellevue leaders two weeks ago, the city discussed improvements, such as an arena parking garage and a "people mover" across Interstate 405, that would fit into the city's plans to improve its downtown, Degginger said.
Bellevue has no plans to offer any concessions until it has a proposal from the team. "It's very hard to respond to just concepts," Degginger said.
Kneeland said he did not know when the team's final proposal will be released. But he said Bennett is sensitive to the Legislature's schedule and will get a plan to lawmakers as soon as possible.
Prentice said the Sonics should have had a plan ready "two weeks ago." But she pledged to fight to get an arena built and predicted that public and legislative support will grow in the coming weeks as trade unions and others start to lobby for the plan.
"Everything I'm hearing from my constituents is big-time support," Prentice said.
Seattle Times staff reporters Ralph Thomas and Ashley Bach contributed to this report.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com
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