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Sunday, February 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Why the Sonics want a better arena (and why you should support them)

Special to The Times

As a longtime Sonics fan who heads up the group of primarily local Sonics fans that acquired the organization in 2001, I want to share a few of my thoughts from a local owner's perspective. My goal is to have a constructive public discussion about the Seattle Sonics & Storm's future.

When I made the transition from "fan" to the position of "fan chairing the Sonics and Storm ownership group," I made some observations that still stick with me. One thing I think is important for everyone, including me, to remember is that sports — amateur and professional — are about more than just games played by athletes. Sports are a deeply ingrained part of our culture, and part of what connects our communities and provides moments shared by generations of our families. They are also part of what connects us with other people throughout the world. More than 140 million people around the globe watched the Seahawks play in the Super Bowl last Sunday. Throughout the Hawks' playoff run this year, people in communities all over the globe saw our region's icons, such as Puget Sound, Mount Rainier and the Space Needle.

Closer to home, nearly everyone in the Pacific Northwest tuned in to watch the team's magical postseason, leaving many freeways free of traffic, several stores closed spontaneously and public gathering places from churches to sports bars packed. Cars flew the "12" flags. The Seahawks were everywhere.

Similarly, when the Houston Rockets and their star center, Yao Ming, play an NBA game, 257 million television sets in China are tuned to the game. In baseball, millions of people in Japan cheer for the Mariners and Ichiro. And right now, millions of people are watching athletes from dozens of countries compete in the Winter Olympic Games in Torino.

Sports — like family, the arts and our other shared human interests — are the basis for our culture. They give all of us a sense of civic pride and identity. They help people from different countries and different backgrounds find common values that move human understanding and economic cooperation forward.

Culture isn't just about art galleries, performance halls and museums. Culture is also about the amateur and professional sports that help define who we are.

When I travel around the world on business, people don't generally ask me first about Starbucks. When they learn I'm from Seattle, they want to know about the Seahawks, the Mariners and the Sonics. Our trading partners feel a connection to the Pacific Northwest through professional sports, and I believe there's great economic value in this. The "window" our professional teams provide for our region is important for us to remember, especially in a trade-dependent state like ours.

Most local governments recognize this and work hard to provide their citizens and visitors with a variety of cultural and recreational opportunities. The city of Seattle, for example, provides links to the professional sports teams on the arts page of its Web site.

So to me, having men's and women's professional basketball franchises in the Pacific Northwest is about much more than entertainment. It's also about maintaining and growing something that contributes to the culture and the economy of the region.

With that backdrop, I hope we can have a public discussion that focuses on whether this region values having NBA and WNBA franchises, and whether it is willing to do what is required for them to be competitive teams.

So here is a quick rundown on the situation from our view:

The Sonics & Storm organization is honoring the lease for KeyArena. Ownership agreed to a 15-year lease when KeyArena was remodeled in 1995. We are fulfilling all of our obligations under the lease, which ends in 2010. No tax money was used for the remodel and none is used to support the Sonics or the Storm. We have paid more than $114 million to use the facility, approximately $100 million of capital investment and about $14 million in rent. The issue is where the teams will play and practice after the 2009-10 season.

No tax money was used for the KeyArena remodel. In 1995, the city issued bonds based on revenues generated by the users of the Key to pay the debt. No taxes are currently used to support the Sonics or the Storm. And since 1995, revenues and admission taxes generated from KeyArena have returned a profit to Seattle Center.

The Seattle Center facilities are inadequate or no longer available. We're looking to the future and are considering what facilities are needed to be successful, both financially and on the court. A new lease will cover the long term. Our training facility at Seattle Center has already been sold by the city and will not be available to us after 2010. KeyArena's space is severely constrained. It is not competitive now as an NBA or WNBA venue. And, given its operational inefficiencies, it is less competitive as a venue for concerts, shows, exhibitions and other attractions. Promoters may frequently pass on bringing shows to KeyArena due to the increasing costs and inefficient structure of the building.

The facility-issue timing is not new. We have been clear since 2003 that a decision had to be made no later than this year. Our timing is driven by the five to seven years it takes to plan, permit and construct a new building, or to make major improvements to an existing facility. Given the imminent deadline, we are on a collision course with time.

The region needs a first-rate multipurpose arena for the future. A large multipurpose arena is an important part of a community's fabric. Seattle has had an arena for regional shows, concerts, sports, exhibitions and community meetings for nearly a century. In fact, professional basketball games represent 60 of the 145 average number of events staged annually at KeyArena. The Sonics & Storm can continue to be an anchor tenant and help pay the costs of a new or expanded arena. But most multipurpose professional sports arenas also have substantial public investment.

The improvements KeyArena needs will make it a competitive multipurpose facility. The proposed improvements will double the square footage of the facility to bring it up to the national average for arena size, to improve access and parking and to make it more feasible for future concerts and shows. Most of the remodeling work done in 1995 will be preserved in the expansion.

No new taxes are needed to provide public support for renovating KeyArena or for building a new arena. Financial support can come from extending the same "visitor" taxes that were levied in King County to support construction of Safeco and Qwest fields. Extending existing taxes would also provide sorely needed revenue for arts and heritage programs in King County. Under the proposal to extend the "visitor" taxes, no one will pay any more than they currently pay for renting cars, dining out and staying in a hotel. With the extension of these taxes, we could complete the financing of Qwest and Safeco fields as well as fund the necessary improvements to KeyArena or construct a new facility.

The Sonics and the Storm provide important economic benefits to the region. More than 800 jobs are supported by KeyArena, and many of them are part-time positions held by people re-entering the workforce. Our organization generates more than $230 million annually in economic activity for the region, and contributes more than $3.2 million in state and local taxes.

The bill pending before the Legislature regarding these issues would extend the authority of King County to levy "visitor" taxes after the debt for Qwest Field and Safeco Field is paid off. The proposal doesn't require improving KeyArena or building a new arena. It simply gives King County the authority to levy the tax and the opportunity to decide what to do with it in the future — with some stipulations, including dedicating a portion of it to the arts. We're hoping the Legislature will act this year and approve the bill.

I hope legislators will see this proposal not only as an economic investment, but as an investment in preserving and enhancing an important part of our community's culture and tradition of the past 40 years. We can all be fans of that.

Howard Schultz is a Seattle resident, chairman of Starbucks Coffee Company and chairman of the Basketball Club of Seattle LLC — a group of primarily local Sonics and Storm fans that purchased the teams in 2001.

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