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Originally published April 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 17, 2007 at 3:57 PM

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Sonics

"Little hope" for Sonics now

Legislative leaders said there was not enough support for a proposed $500 million Renton arena.

Seattle Times staff reporters

OLYMPIA -- Sonics and Storm owner Clay Bennett said the teams now have "little hope of remaining in the Puget Sound region" after state lawmakers announced Monday they will not vote on public funding for a proposed $500 million Renton arena before the Legislature adjourns this weekend.

Despite last-minute pleas from arena backers, legislative leaders emerged from closed-door meetings with Gov. Christine Gregoire on Monday night to say there was not enough support for the proposal.

Gregoire called Bennett to ask whether talks could continue after the session. But Bennett did not seem convinced that would do any good.

In a written statement, Bennett called the lack of action in Olympia a "staggering and quite likely a debilitating blow" to prospects for a "world class" arena.

"By its inaction the Legislature has delivered the message that they are indifferent to the notion of the Sonics and the Storm leaving the market," he said.

Some lawmakers suggested the Sonics proposal might do better next year if the arena were sold as more than just a shiny new palace for basketball.

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said arena backers could use the time after the session in "an attempt to remarket it and see if we can get something going for next year."

The Sonics have always touted the proposed arena as a multipurpose venue that would host concerts, corporate meetings, hockey and other events.

Rep. Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island, described the Legislature's no-but-maybe-next-year stance this way: "The timing wasn't right for the 2007 session and the opportunity was too great to let go of."

Bennett said he remains willing to work with Gregoire and lawmakers "to explore every conceivable funding option," including private funding. "But at this time we have no other concepts on the table," he said.

It was the third unsuccessful attempt in as many years by Sonics and Storm owners to get stadium deals similar to what the Mariners and Seahawks got in the 1990s.

At first, the teams tried to get more than $200 million for an expansion of Seattle's KeyArena. When that failed, owners set their sights on a new suburban arena.

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The latest rejection could open the door for the Sonics and Storm to leave for Oklahoma -- the outcome feared by fans ever since Bennett's group of Oklahoma City businessmen bought the teams for $350 million last year.

Bennett has pledged to make a "good faith" effort to secure an arena deal in the Seattle area. But unless he gets a deal by Oct. 31, he has said he may relocate the teams after their KeyArena leases end in 2010.

The Sonics' legislation sought authorization for up to $300 million in King County taxes for the Renton arena. The taxes on hotels, car rentals and restaurants are now used to pay off debt from Safeco and Qwest fields and the demolished Kingdome.

The proposal also would have devoted an estimated $227 million in state sales taxes for improvements to ballfields, future repairs at Safeco and Qwest fields, and grants to King County arts groups.

The measure appeared to have significant support in the state Senate but could not overcome opposition in the House, where Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, was openly hostile.

Sonics backers accused Chopp of obstructing a House vote because of his personal distaste for the proposal.

"The problem is you have one member of the House whose vote counts more than everybody else's," said Sonics spokesman Jim Kneeland.

Chopp brushed off such criticism.

"That's theoretical," Chopp said, "because they don't have anywhere near the votes. Look, I'm focused on other things."

The arena's demise came despite last-ditch efforts by Sonics supporters.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell called Chopp and other lawmakers to urge them to keep negotiating.

"In the long run it's cheaper and easier to keep the team in the state than it is to bring in a team in 10 years from now when the ball rolls around again," said Cantwell spokeswoman Katharine Lister.

Renton Mayor Kathy Keolker sent an e-mail -- under the subject line "One Final Plea" -- urging Chopp to allow a vote.

"I only ask that you give us a chance to make this work at the local level, with our elected officials, our communities and our voters," Keolker wrote.

Meanwhile, lobbyists for the Sonics and Renton delivered a handwritten letter to lawmakers offering to negotiate.

For instance, they said the owners are willing to discuss whether to require a public vote on the proposal and whether to include language requiring the teams to enter a long-term lease and cover any cost overruns. They also said they were willing to talk more about how much money the owners would put up.

The letter was also signed by lobbyists for other groups, including the Mariners, Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Washington Restaurant Association and state labor council.

Still, some lawmakers questioned the Sonics' lobbying effort.

When Seahawks owner Paul Allen was pushing his stadium funding proposal 10 years ago, he unleashed an army of lobbyists and made a high-profile pitch in Olympia.

"The Sonics just have not done that kind of full-court press," said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Finance Committee, who opposed the proposal. "I don't know that they're serious."

Hunter said he got more pressure this year to support public financing for a theater-renovation project in Yakima than from the Sonics.

But Kessler said she thinks the Sonics -- aware that people were wary of another stadium deal -- tried finesse instead of force.

"I think they tried to keep it sort of low-key so they wouldn't frighten anybody into an early 'no,' " she said.

Despite calling for negotiations Monday, and speaking favorably about the arena at times, Gregoire did not appear willing to risk much political capital pushing for the arena.

The governor was not available for comment Monday night, after the talks in her office.

"She doesn't have anything to add," said Holly Armstrong, the governor's spokeswoman.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

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