Fouling Up KeyArena

Neither the SuperSonics nor the city seem able to hit the rim.

"Blah, blah, blah," is what Seattle City Council member David Della told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in reaction to the SuperSonics' latest threat to move out of town. No "acrimony or recrimination" intended, is the way Sonics President Wally Walker characterizes his take-it-or-shove-it offer to City Hall.

The team's collision with city officials over renovation of KeyArena has become the accident scene you can't turn away from. Mangled proposals, dismembered counter-offers, trails of bad blood—leaving both sides bent out of shape. Oh, the humanity.

Fans and taxpayers are left with their ears ringing like Starbucks addicts and their eyes blurry trying to follow the bouncing basketball. What did it mean when, on Wednesday, April 26, Della gathered his council committee to discuss "establishing parameters for negotiating a new lease and financial agreement to a potential remodel of KeyArena"? They were planning to plan plans, maybe?

Della said he and other council members hoped to keep the Sonics in town, but not at any cost, and only with voter approval of any new or extended taxes. How? His committee approved a blueprint for talks, a council resolution to which the Sonics had already objected; it has no time frame, and it is wide open to negotiation—cost included. Other than that, the committee had a solid plan. This week, the full council gave its approval, after Della described the resolution as "hanging tough."

Apparently this is how great decisions are reached—by groping. It's the blind man feeling the elephant: Is this his tail or his . . . ? Well, yank it and see how he reacts. You might remember City Council President Nick Licata saying that losing 600,000 Seattle Center visitors a year—the number who attend Sonics games—would have "zero" economic effect on the city. National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern wailed back that Seattle was "not interested in having the NBA there"—after four decades of having it here.

Mayor Greg Nickels clearly does or doesn't (pick one) prefer keeping the team here but says if the Supes leave, it's Olympia's fault. Sonics principal owner and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is washing his hands of blame, too. He and 57 fellow investors, collectively worth as much as $2 billion, can't be expected to pay for their own losses and mismanagement, he says. Whaddaya think this is, a business?

The question of how best to remodel KeyArena was first asked three years ago. After a year of planning, the city backed Sonics efforts in 2005 to obtain financing from the Legislature, which failed. This year, the city backed away from a new but similar proposed plan, which failed. The other day, long after legislators had packed up and gone home, the mayor sought Olympia's support for another similar plan, which failed to impress. Progress is being made, at least in failure.

Council members at one point seemed resigned to the possibility the Sonics might move to the suburbs. City Hall would fix up its little gym and have a few garage bands in, no hard feelings. Maybe it was just posturing. It was. Recently, all nine members and the mayor signed a letter to the governor saying any new arena money OK'd by the state should go only to Seattle. "The public has already made a significant investment in KeyArena and we should not be duplicating that contribution by investing in similar facilities elsewhere in the region." Please help us sandbag this team!

Nickels also publicly issued a letter he alone sent to Gov. Christine Gregoire and legislative leaders asking them to preapprove a preapproved arena proposal the city might propose for approval. (You had to read it.) The governor publicly approved a quick response: Are you kidding? She didn't say it, but surely must have thought it: Who's advising City Hall on this, the old monorail board?

By the way, there's a handy invention called the telephone sitting on the mayor's desk. It can be used to call the governor and quietly ask, "What do you think of this screwy idea?" Failing that, there's always e-mail. Maybe his goofy notion would still be rejected, but no one other than the National Security Agency would hear about it.

The Sonics, meanwhile, continue to miscalculate their next move, trying not to top their biggest blunder so far, proposing to contribute all of $18.3 million toward a new arena. The most specific arena plan (see "The Sonics' Venue Envy," Feb. 1) is a $271.5 million package that includes existing debt on KeyArena; with interest, the bottom line to taxpayers would be more than $400 million.

At that level, the gaggle of millionaires will be chipping in all of 4.5 percent in return for a master lease to take all profits from a public facility. How did the lovably cranky Vince Koskela, of stadium-loathing Taxpayers on Strike, put it at Della's hearing? "Howard Schultz has a $29 billion Starbucks empire, 11,000 stores in 37 countries, five new stores open every day, sales double every two years. He bought the Sonics as a hobby or toy. He knew what he was getting into. He needs to step up to the free-throw line and throw in the $220 million himself!"

According to the Sonics' own scratch sheet, the ownership, Basketball Club of Seattle, will be contributing more than a third of the cost. That would put the Sonics and their partner WNBA franchise, the Storm, in the ballpark with the Mariners and Seahawks. They contributed about 27 percent and 35 percent, respectively, toward building Safeco and Qwest fields (if you don't count $1 billion in taxpayer-paid interest). The Supes argue they deserve the same deal those professional franchises got.

But to make their case, the Sonics used some imaginative footwork. If only gangly Robert Swift could juke to his left so well.

The team included $94 million in payments it claims to have made toward an earlier $104 million arena remodel and other improvements. Add the planned $18 million contribution today, the Sonics say, and they will have invested $112 million in the arena after the latest proposed renovations. Total cost of the two re-dos would be $324 million, they figure. So they would have given a third or so.

Aside from the fact the earlier payments were required by a pact with the city, and were made mostly by the team's previous ownership, it's a little like a tenant counting monthly rental payments as equity investment in a home he doesn't own. And in fact, the value has already been returned—by use of the property. But maybe a better analogy is the one discussed the other day on KJR-AM (950), the all-sports radio station the Supes are abandoning in favor of a better offer from all-politics KTTH-AM (770) next season. (Last time the Sonics made a trade like that, they gave away draft rights to Scottie Pippin for the chance to get Olden Polynice.)

KJR hosts Mike Gastineau and Dave Grozby were jawing about the Sonics' calculations when the Gas Man said he tried out the theory at one of Schultz's Starbucks stores. Ordering a $3 latte, Gastineau offered to pay Starbucks $1 for the drink—one third, you see. After all, Gas said, "What about all the lattes I drank in the '90s?" If the Sonics' past user payments constitute accumulated value, don't Gastineau's past drink purchases add up, too? For some reason, Gas said, "They wouldn't go for it." Question is, will we?

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