Lawrence W. Cheek
With the news that the NBA has taken over ownership of the troubled New Orleans Hornets basketball team, hopes for a return of the NBA to Seattle have naturally sprung up. Microsoft's Steve Ballmer is tall, loves basketball, and certainly has the wallet to buy that team and move it here. Probably New Orleans, a football town, not a basketball town, would be amenable to losing the team. But how amenable is Seattle to regaining one?
Let's face it, Seattle has several strikes against it. KeyArena is awkwardly located (far from the freeway, hard to expand, not great parking, and games conflict with other users and parkers at Seattle Center). The whole issue of subsidizing arenas and billionaire sports owners has turned into a political football in Seattle, which even passed a zany initiative to require that such investments pay off at the market rate! Then too, it's hard to imagine that Mayor Mike McGinn would have enough of a welcome in Olympia to get any state support; or enough leadership clout to bring along the citizens and the City Council.
One way around this would be to simply give or sell Key Arena to a Ballmer ownership group, making them fix up the place, rent it to others, and keep all the associated revenue (or losses). That could have happened last time, when the state refused to kick in its share of the renovations but Mayor Nickels could have given the Ballmer group the Arena in exchange for their putting in the missing $75 million. That Nickels wouldn't bite is an indication of labor clout in Seattle (protecting union jobs at the Arena), the public suspicion of privatization (even though that's the case for baseball and football), and the wishful hope that KeyArena can somehow generate enough profit to help support Seattle Center.
The other way around the Seattle obstacle course is to build a new basketball arena in Bellevue. This would enable the owners to build it right (lots of concessions, lots of suites, lots of parking lots). There's a logical place for it in the Bel-Red corridor, which has lots of easily developed land and coming Sound Transit stations. (This corridor is going to be the poster child of transit-oriented development in the region.) Poised between the Microsoft/Redmond node and downtown Bellevue, the new Arena might avoid the problem of being a Bellevue-first facility. It is close to I-405, and in the heart of many affluent ticket holders.
Another advantage of an Eastside facility is that it would allow KeyArena to be downsized into a dandy place for watching the Storm, Seattle U., graduations, and rock shows scaled to the preferred new size. That would be an improvement over its fate in the past three decades as a failed Arena-in-waiting. And the building is — if we don't distort it with bulging new arcades — an architectural masterpiece by Paul Thiry.
KeyArena, a bargain facility, is probably the main reason for Seattle Center's chronic woes. There was no way Mayor Norm Rice was going to let the team leave town, but there wasn't the money or the right ownership to build a facility that could generate enough revenue for the high-salary sport NBA basketball has become. The financing was predicated on corporate suites, and they couldn't sell against the first-rate Safeco Field and Qwest Field facilities. The half-baked Arena gradually pulled the Center into a financial hole with it, and we'd be well advised not to keep throwing money into that hole.
But would the Eastside agree? Last time, when the Oklahoma City owners were half-heartedly looking around for a new site for the Sonics, the Eastside was both suspicious of the owners and wary of the traffic and rowdy crowds that could come with the Sonics. Ballmer has a soft spot in his heart for Seattle Center, so he didn't want to harm it, or at least appear to be doing so. No just-right property, or developer, seemed to be on hand. And Mayor Nickels made it clear that he was interested in saving the Sonics only if they were at Seattle Center.
Well, Mayor Nickels is out of office. The Eastside is larger and more confident and likely more interested in a signature facility to signal its powerhouse businesses. A Microsoft-accented NBA team might also have the kind of global diversity that the NBA wants (eyeing China) and the Euro-Sounders have deployed so effectively as an appeal to the globalized workforces of the region's new economy.
A key first step would be if the Chamber of Commerce could exert its leadership and get the business community to agree on the Eastside-first strategy, even if Seattle restaurants and hotels would complain. Absent that, if Seattle goes back into the NBA market with a KeyArena-first strategy, I'd say forget about those Hornets.
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