State May Help Sonics, But Not With Cash

State May Help Sonics, But Not With Cash
Investors in a proposed arena to lure a pro basketball franchise back to Seattle won't be seeking any public subsidies this time around, they say. But the leading backers at present still are aiming for the industrial SoDo neighborhood of Seattle, for a site. Regional port officials and The Port of Seattle remain opposed, saying the impact on port traffic and trade would be too great. Photo: Port of Seattle.

State lawmakers January 26 kicked off the first of three planned work sessions to help decide if legislation would help bring the Seattle Sonics pro basketball franchise back to life. No state monies are in the cards, but at least one key senator says it’s not inconceivable that other measures could be considered, if needed to help facilitate pro hoops in Washington again. Once again, however, a south-of-downtown location is getting static.

In 2008, the Sonics departed Seattle for Oklahoma City after the state refused to approve public funding for a new sports center. Most recently, in 2016, an arena bid led by entrepreneur Chris Hansen and involving public give-backs, also tanked. Now, a proposal from a Hansen investor group takes a different tack.

Privately-Financed Arena

A staff presentation to the Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee last week underscored Hansen’s consortium is now willing to privately finance the arena, in full. However, the locale in Seattle’s industrial SoDo neighborhood amidst cargo truck routes vital to timely global exports from the Port of Seattle, remains problematic. A different plan from the City of Seattle, seeking private investment only, would renovate the Sonics’ former home at Key Arena in Lower Queen Anne for the first time in 22 years.

The private funding models mean state lawmakers likely won’t be asked to finance any part of either proposal.

Arena Siting Still Thorny

Although few oppose the Sonics’ return, especially if it can be done without cost to taxpayers, deciding exactly where they should play is no slam dunk, as arena developers and team backers learned last year.

That was when the Seattle City Council narrowly voted down another Hansen-led Sonics arena bid. It also focused on SoDo, and a key sticking point was the city’s unwillingness to give up a street in order for the arena to be built. That proposal originally called for public financing from the city and King County, but late last year Hansen said the project can rely entirely on private-funding.

SoDo stadium supporters say it would create 2,000 jobs during construction, and then generate millions of dollars in new local and state taxes from increased tourism. King County Executive Dow Constantine likes the location’s proximity to regional transit routes.

Freight Corridor Congestion

However, the maritime industry and local longshoremen warn this year’s SoDo stadium proposal would still disrupt a major freight corridor. In 2014, Port of Seattle terminals, including sizable facilities located just west of SoDo, imported and exported $18.4 billion worth container cargo, according to a recent study by Community Attributes Inc.

“The Sonics should come back, and for us, the only issue has been where,” Kurt Beckett told panel members. Beckett is the Deputy CEO for the Northwest Seaport Alliance, a joint development authority of the ports of the Seattle and Tacoma.

Too Many Impacts’ From SoDo Location

Beckett added, “The SoDo location creates too many impacts into our city and our region’s transportation system, and undermines family-wage jobs and the diverse economy that results from maritime manufacturing employers. Our working waterfront and nearby maritime manufacturing employers continue to be an economic engine that has lifted tens of thousands of families into the middle class.”

For those new to Washington, the loss of 40-year basketball franchise is still a fresh and bitter memory for many.

Souring the departure was how it went down: In 2006, then-Sonics owner and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz lobbied legislators for funds to renovate Key Arena, but failed. He then sold the team that year to Oklahoma City-based businessman Clay Bennett, who decided to uproot the Sonics in 2008 after legislators rejected proposals for new arena financing. The move broke a lease at Key Arena, resulting in a $45 million settlement with the city of Seattle.

So Done With That

One of the lawmakers opposed was State Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35), now a member of the Senate Majority Coalition. He told Lens the days of state-financed sports stadiums “are over. We wouldn’t build a cruise ship and let Holiday Cruise Line take them out and make money on them.”

Ranking Minority Member Sen. Karen Keiser (D-33) told committee colleagues January 26 that “stadium fatigue” killed a slew of mid-2000s arena subsidy bills in Olympia. In the 1990s, the state legislature approved some funding for Qwest Stadium and Safeco Field. They are homes, respectively, to the Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Mariners.

The opposition at the time to funding a new Sonics stadium “was not aimed at basketball per se,” she added. “It was really just an overall sense of the public, that had had enough.”

Open To Non-Funding Legislation

Sheldon told Lens he is open to legislation that could be needed to ease any potential regulatory burden that could stand in the way of a new arena. However, he emphasized lawmakers shouldn’t dip into state coffers or offer tax exemptions.

“I love sports,” Sheldon added. “I just think the developers should pay, the owners should pay, and not the taxpayers.”

City Eyes Key Renovation

Meanwhile, The City of Seattle recently released a request for privately-funded proposals to transform Key Arena into a multi-use center that could host pro basketball and hockey franchises.

Beckett told committee members that Key Arena could make a “viable alternative to development plans in SODO.”

However, the Chair, State Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-6), was skeptical. “There’s not a heck of a lot of public transportation available to Key Arena. There’s not a great build-out of parking, either.”

Shippers Avoid Congestion

Local labor groups are also opposed to the SoDo location, fearing snarled traffic near the port. A 2015 economic impact analysis by Pro Forma Advisors for the City of Seattle concluded that the stadium would cause a total of 2,408 hours in annual delays for truckers.

John Persak told panel members that “the logistics chain is very, very flexible, and it is just as easy for someone to pick up a phone and say, ‘We’d like that container to go to B.C.,’” instead of Seattle. Persak is vice president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 19.

“In the current system, when there is a game at Safeco or Century Link, the people shipping products…they have to literally tell their trucks to not come in for that afternoon, because it’s just so congested already,” Persak said.

At two upcoming committee work sessions, members will further examine current stadium proposals, and then discuss possible legislation. The sessions have not yet been scheduled.

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