Bennett wants KeyArena talks
Ending months of silence about his teams' future at KeyArena, Sonics and Storm owner Clay Bennett called Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels on Thursday...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Ending months of silence about his teams' future at KeyArena, Sonics and Storm owner Clay Bennett called Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels on Thursday to reopen lease negotiations.
But the gesture may not be the olive branch some basketball fans and city officials may have hoped for.
Although Bennett said he'll listen to the mayor's proposals to remake KeyArena, the talks may include whether the Sonics and Storm can get out of their lease before it expires in 2010.
"Anything and everything is on the table," Bennett said Thursday morning.
Bennett described his five-minute conversation with Nickels as cordial and said the mayor expressed a desire to keep the teams in Seattle.
The brief phone call was the first time Nickels and Bennett have spoken since September, according to Nickels spokesman Marty McOmber.
The two expect to arrange an in-person meeting within a week.
It has been a year since the surprise announcement that Bennett and a team of Oklahoma City investors had bought the Sonics and Storm from the local ownership group led by Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz.
As part of that purchase, Bennett signed an agreement requiring a "good-faith" effort until Oct. 31 to seal an arena deal here.
Bennett repeated Thursday that his deadline still stands. Unless substantial progress is made on an arena deal, he said, he plans to ask the NBA for permission to relocate the teams.
While he would not discuss any details Thursday, Nickels previously has offered to sweeten the KeyArena lease and possibly provide public money for a major renovation.
Within the last month, Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis contacted representatives of the Sonics and NBA to see whether Bennett would return to the negotiating table.
In a recent interview, Ceis said he thinks KeyArena could work for the Sonics and Storm if Bennett is willing to keep an open mind.
"It can be made to meet their needs," he said.
The mayor's KeyArena proposals — first offered to the previous team owners last year — would make the Sonics lease more attractive by eliminating the requirement that the Sonics share revenue from luxury suites, concessions and some other tickets with the city.
The proposals also call for an arena renovation costing between $50 million and $200 million, with team owners paying a maximum of $50 million.
Those changes could deliver the Sonics an additional $8 million to $20 million a year, the mayor's office has estimated.
Bennett said he doubts any of the city's offers can make KeyArena adequate for the teams.
"KeyArena can be a fine building for certain events" but would not be profitable for the NBA even with a $200 million expansion, he said.
If the public wants the Sonics and Storm to stay here, "we need a new building" — whether at Seattle Center or elsewhere.
Brian Robinson, co-founder of the fan group Save our Sonics and Storm, said he was encouraged by the prospect of new talks between the city and the team. But he said Nickels should not allow Bennett to get out of his lease before 2010 under any circumstances.
Robinson's group is considering filing an initiative that would prohibit the mayor from negotiating such a buyout.
The Sonics lease at KeyArena runs through September 2010. Bennett said he may seek to negotiate a settlement with the city to end that lease early but stressed he would not simply break the lease without a settlement.
"We will not be moving in the middle of the night," Bennett said.
Although frustrated with the local response to his arena proposal, Bennett said he understands if the public doesn't want to devote taxpayer money to an arena. He said the best hope for the teams to remain in the Seattle area may rest with private business partners who have yet to emerge.
"Clearly, the bulk of the financing will need to be driven by the private sector," Bennett said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com
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