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Originally published September 19, 2012 at 8:28 PM | Page modified September 20, 2012 at 7:10 AM

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Is KeyArena 'dead' with new Sodo deal?

The future of Seattle Center's KeyArena is in doubt if the Seattle Storm were to move to the proposed Sodo sports arena.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Future of the Key

The revised agreement for a new sports arena in Sodo earmarks $7 million toward the future of KeyArena. But a closer look shows that much less could really be available for the Seattle Center venue.

$7 million: Set aside to study and improve KeyArena

-$5 million: Will follow Seattle Storm if team moves to new arena

$2 million: What's left for KeyArena

One idea being discussed is to reconfigure KeyArena into a smaller, 7,500-seat venue that could fill a different need. A 2006 study estimated the cost of such a remodel at $20 million.

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Many fans of KeyArena were relieved when a revised agreement for a new $490 million sports arena in Sodo included a $7 million fund to improve and study the future of the aging Seattle Center entertainment venue.

But that relief turned to dismay as details of the deal were made public.

The fine print calls for $5 million of the KeyArena fund to follow the Seattle Storm, if the professional women's basketball team relocates to the new arena.

The remaining $2 million would offset the cost of any future improvements to KeyArena.

"KeyArena is dead and done the day the new arena opens," said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, whose district includes Seattle Center and Lower Queen Anne. "The language to study KeyArena punts on any meaningful commitment to the future of Seattle Center."

Carlyle isn't alone in that critique.

Members of the Seattle Center Advisory Commission say the new arena would "devastate" KeyArena, throw its existing business plan into doubt and leave Seattle Center without one of its major draws.

Revision of deal sought

They are calling on the City Council, which will vote Monday on the revised arena agreement with investor Chris Hansen, to amend the deal once more and allocate additional resources to Seattle Center.

"The deal as written provides only a fraction of the money needed to revitalize KeyArena," said Angela Robar, a Seattle Center Commission member. "If the Storm signs with the new arena, $5 million goes with the Storm. Not only will one of our key tenants leave, we won't have the $5 million either."

Business owners in the Lower Queen Anne/Uptown neighborhood, trying to recover from the departure of the Sonics and a tough economy, say a new arena likely would attract the biggest entertainers who now perform at KeyArena — and what remains of their customers.

"If Madonna has to choose between the Key and an all-dolled-up new place, it's not even close," said Don Tremblay, owner and manager of T.S. McHugh's restaurant.

He said the new arena "leaves us almost out of business, to be frank."

The original deal, negotiated between Mayor Mike McGinn, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Hansen, didn't address the future of KeyArena. Like the revised memorandum of understanding, the original deal called for Hansen to make improvements to KeyArena necessary to host National Basketball Association and National Hockey League games while a new arena is being built, likely two to three years.

Under the revised agreement, taxes generated from the teams' games at the Key would go into the $7 million fund. Any additional tax revenues above $7 million would go into a $40 million transportation fund meant to improve freight mobility in Sodo, also included in the revised deal.

At the least, said Robar, all the taxes generated at the Key should be used to maintain the Key.

McGinn said he appreciates that the revised agreement addresses KeyArena and the future of Seattle Center, but he noted that both have struggled financially over the past few years, well before a new arena was proposed.

The mayor said the additions of the Chihuly Glass Museum and KEXP radio station were both efforts to inject new money and new visitors to the Center.

"Before Chris Hansen came along, we were already having this discussion," McGinn said. It's not known what future role KeyArena will have in the mix of things at Seattle Center, McGinn said.

KeyArena was built for the 1962 World's Fair. The city spent $75.7 million to substantially remodel it for the Seattle SuperSonics in 1995, only to have NBA Commissioner David Stern declare it inadequate a decade later and demand hundreds of millions more in upgrades.

The team was purchased and moved to Oklahoma City in 2008 when state and city leaders failed to come up with more money.

After several years of operating losses, KeyArena showed a modest, $300,000 profit in 2011. It hosts a range of events and concerts and is home basketball court to both the Storm and the Seattle University Redhawks.

Cost of Key makeover

A future possibility would be to reconfigure KeyArena into a smaller, 7,500-seat venue. That reconfiguration could allow it to complement rather than compete with the bigger, glitzier arena that could rise across town. A 2006 study estimated the cost of such a remodel at $20 million.

In July, Storm owners still were sounding as if the Key would be their future home. Owners said they were thinking about expanding women's sports there, including events such as the Pac-12 women's basketball tournament, which will be held at the Key in March.

This week, Storm owners said they wouldn't comment on the revised agreement with Hansen and what it means for the team. The city currently subsidizes the Storm at KeyArena to the tune of $300,000 a year. The $5 million that would follow the team to the new arena is meant to continue that city support.

Several City Council members have raised concerns about the future of KeyArena and acknowledged the need to re-imagine Seattle Center.

"I'm not writing off the Key," said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the council Parks and Neighborhoods Committee. But she added that the city must be realistic about its own finances and how much is needed to re-purpose the building.

Councilmember Tim Burgess said he'd like to see long-range planning for the Center that protects a "tremendous public asset." He sees the two- to three-year window while a new NBA team would play at Key as an opportunity for the city to come up with a new vision for the Center.

"We want to preserve Seattle Center and find new reasons for people to visit. I'm not sure that includes KeyArena."

Carlyle said the city's effort to address the future of Seattle Center should be as vigorous and passionate as its commitment in the revised agreement to address transportation problems in Sodo.

"For leaders of the city to say they 'got everything they wanted' out of the deal doesn't acknowledge that through this policy decision, they are ending the life of KeyArena," he said.

Material from Seattle Times archives was included in this report. Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

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