What is not started today is never finished tomorrow — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It’s been a long four years since the Seattle Sonics left in the dead of night, trading in their black coffees for the black gold of Oklahoma City. It’s been an even longer 88 years since the Seattle Metropolitans folded, trading in their ice skates for prohibition-era bootlegging gear.
Two wrongs, one step closer to being made right.
This past Thursday, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine held a press conference at City Hall to unveil a proposal to form a public-private partnership to finance a new multipurpose arena in the “SoDo” region of the downtown stadium district. Former Seattle area resident and current San Francisco hedge fund manager Chris Hansen has led the charge, forging a coalition of civic, business and political leaders that have worked behind the scenes for months on the project. Key to the proposal is the facility’s stated purpose to house not only a resurrected Sonics franchise, but a transplanted NHL team as well.
“On first look, this is an exciting proposal,” beamed McGinn. “We have a chance to do something special,” agreed Constantine.
The rudiments of the plan were unveiled at the press conference. The total project cost was estimated at upwards of $500 million, with the facility to be located on land already owned by Hansen. Private investors would kick in $290 million, with the remainder financed by revenue bonds repaid via user fees and taxes generated by the facility. According to city officials, only Staples Center in Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden in New York have had a greater amount of private equity contributed toward their respective facilities than the proposed arena. An AP article termed the amount of liability Hansen’s group was willing to absorb “staggering”.
Renderings were not made available, but sources have indicated the arena would seat approximately 18,000 and be state-of-the-art. It would be located adjacent to the south parking lot of Safeco Field, and with the minimal overlap between NBA and NHL schedules and baseball season, coupled with the potential for overflow parking at CenturyLink Field, would not create serious parking challenges.
Securing anchor NHL and NBA tenants, on the other hand, will be no simple matter. The NHL has owned and operated the Phoenix Coyotes since 2009 and has made no secret of its desire to find a solution to the ownership dilemma. If a local ownership group cannot be found, a move within the Pacific time zone to 13th largest media market in the United States, by all accounts, would be ideal. The battleground will be fought at the grassroots level, as the franchise has been in Phoenix since relocating from Winnipeg in 1996. With respect to the NBA, the Sacramento Kings have been on the public radar screen for over a year since the NBA extended its deadline for the franchise to come up with its own arena solution. A crucial February 28th vote by the city council regarding selling the rights to the lease income from Sacramento’s downtown parking facilities for a one-time upfront payment that could then be used to finance half or more of a new facility will determine the team’s fate. Mayor Kevin Johnson is “cautiously optimistic” about the vote
If not the Coyotes or Kings, there are other franchises within both sports that may seek relocation in the near-term future. According to sources, there are clubs quietly for sale in both leagues, along with numerous others that play in outdated facilities and/or are otherwise unable to make a sufficient return on investment in their current cities.
Still unclear in the proposal is whether or not agreements with anchor tenants need to be in place before shovels can turn. In an interview on local sports radio station 950 KJR, Constantine indicated that it was likely Hansen’s investment group required certain commitments before equity funds would be contributed. However, both McGinn and Constantine distanced themselves from that process, stating that although they supported the return of the NBA and establishment of the NHL in Seattle, their efforts would be limited to ensuring the public was not subject to significant risk in the process. “This proposal will comply with I-91 (the initiative passed by voters in 2006 barring public investments in private facilities without a predetermined return on investment), said McGinn, clarifying that due to the fact that the debt service would be generated by revenues not currently existing, “In practical terms, there is no public subsidy.”
City Councilman Tim Burgess believes council approval could happen as early as June. Hansen’s letter to the city stated “I am confident this proposal will be looked on favorably by both leagues and sincerely believe that together we can accomplish the goal of securing NBA and NHL franchises for our community.”
Temporary homes for relocated teams during the construction process would still need to be secured and approved by both leagues. Key Arena, the former home of the Seattle SuperSonics, has reportedly been given the green light by the NBA. An NHL-suitable arena would be thornier, as Key Arena was not built for hockey and would have thousands of unsuitable seats, severely limiting attendance and potential revenues. The Tacoma Dome, which can seat upwards of 17,000 and is located approximately 30 miles to the south, could be a viable option. “A lot of things have to align for this to work, and I can’t predict whether everything will align or not,” said Mayor McGinn on 710 ESPN Seattle radio. “It’s not game 7,” added Constantine, “this is the tip-off of the first game of the preseason.”
Whether they are eventually called the Metropolitans, Totems, Sasquatch or Coffee, the NHL has never been closer to fruition in the Emerald City than it is right now. If you live in the area, it could be coming soon to a Dome near you.