Ball Bounces the Other Way for the Sonics ArenaMarch 6th, 2008 by Steven Gardner
As the Legislature approaches the midnight hour, a group of investors are coming forward to A. put $150 million toward improvements at KeyArena and B. ask the state and the city to match funds.
Among the group of investors is Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. The group is asking the state for $75 million and the city of Seattle for another $75 million. That doesn’t include the cost of buying the team, which current owner Clayton Bennett says is not for sale and will be moving to Oklahoma City.
A year ago Seattle residents passed Initiative 91, which is described by its author Chris Van Dyk as requiring that any money the city invests include a positive return on investment.
He was also one of the vocal opponents of the speedway deal here.
Nonetheless, there he is in Thursday’s Seattle Times, speaking positively about the most recent KeyArena deal.
Van Dyk, the anti-stadium activist, said he thinks the latest proposal could be a good deal for taxpayers.
Van Dyk said he’s been briefed on the plan and thinks it would meet the requirements of Initiative 91, approved by Seattle voters two years ago. The measure requires any arena subsidies for pro sports teams to turn a profit for the public.
Van Dyk suggested the arena plan may not even require a public vote.
“If it meets the terms of I-91, as far as I’m concerned, the public has already had its say-so,” Van Dyk said.
Van Dyk is a Bainbridge Island resident. I called him today and asked him to specify some of the differences he sees between this deal and the one for NASCAR.
A “key difference,” he said, is that there is a better direct cash return to the city. He then went on to discuss some of the other weaknesses he saw in the NASCAR deal. He talked about the infrastructure he thought ISC officials didn’t understand, saying it was the physical location that “ultimately killed NASCAR.”
During the debate last year, though, Van Dyk also discussed how ISC’s proposal called for taxes generated by race fans as something that would be impossible to measure. In this case, the city would get its money returned, because it would bond for the $75 million it’s putting up, would get lease payments and then in 20 years would own the arena. He’s basing that on initial conversations. “If ultimately what comes out is wrong, then we’ll say so,” he said.
The state will not get its money back, he conceded, but said that shouldn’t kill the deal. “I think there’s an element of heartburn, but there comes a point where you say, ‘Reasonable is reasonable,’” he said. “You’ve got to live in the real world.”
He compared the current KeyArena proposal to the public’s investment of $300 million for the football stadium and the $18 million that former Sonics owner Howard Schultz initially offered as a contribution to fixing the Sonics’ home court.
“By being creative we were able to stop a deal for $18 million and we got another $132 million. I call that a win,” Van Dyk said.
I asked him if he thought Clay Bennett was ever serious about keeping the team in Seattle. “No,” he said. Van Dyk said he met with Bennett’s group twice, the last time about a month after Bennett bought the Sonics. He said his group was willing to work with Bennett to get them a deal that would meet the restrictions of Initiative 91. After that second visit, though, he said he couldn’t get anyone from the new Sonics’ ownership to return his calls.
Bennett then went to the Legislature with a proposal for a $500 million arena in Renton, for which the state was asked $300 million. “The Renton proposal was as big an apple pie as you could ever stuff in your gullet,” Van Dyk said Thursday.
I mean, if Bennett really wanted to keep the team in Seattle, he wouldn’t be so uncreative or intractable. And he wouldn’t be such a whiney little quitter. You know, qualities one doesn’t usually associate with successful businessmen.
Or CEOs who have to answer to Bill Gates, which from what I hear is no picnic.
On Tuesday more than 60 percent of Oklahoma City voters approved a 15-month one-cent sales tax increase to improve the arena there to make it more attractive to the National Basketball Association.