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If Sonics leave town, what's next for KeyArena?

SEATTLE -- If the Seattle SuperSonics and Storm leave the
Emerald City following their sale to Oklahoma City businessman Clay
Bennett, their home court could become a giant video arcade.

That's one idea pitched by Seattle City Council President Nick
Licata for the future of KeyArena.

No, really, he's serious.

"It would be an opportunity for a real public-private
partnership of a different sort than, say, professional sports,"
Licata said. "We could convert KeyArena to a new type of facility
that would reflect new 21st century technology."

"In Las Vegas, 15,000 show up for a national gaming conference.
Why not have those people come to Seattle?"

Licata's idea may seem far-fetched, but finding a viable
financial solution for KeyArena and providing upgrades to the
surrounding Seattle Center is a significant issue for local
officials. The Seattle Center was the site for Seattle's 1962
World's Fair.

Former Sonics' majority owner Howard Schultz announced Tuesday
that the teams had been sold for $350 million to Bennett and other
participants in the Professional Basketball Club LLC, who represent
a cross section of top Oklahoma City businesses.

David Heurtel, Seattle Center's director of marketing and
business development, cautioned against moving forward with any
specific plans. He's operating under the belief the Sonics will be
playing in KeyArena through the 2010 expiration of the team's
lease.

If the Sonics were to leave early, they would have to pay off
the remainder of the lease and the city would most likely seek
damages. Bennett said Tuesday his group would spend the next year
trying to negotiate with local and state officials for a new arena
or upgrades to KeyArena.

"There's lots of options if you look at Seattle Center as a
whole. There are things to look at with the entertainment sector
and technology sector," Heurtel said. "But where we are right now
is the idea process. We don't have a definite task identified."

Licata believes the Sonics will eventually leave town -- the only
question is whether it will be before the expiration of the lease.
Discussions about what to do with the arena if the Sonics leave
have already started.

"It's not good news. I'd prefer the Sonics had remained in
Seattle with local ownership," Licata said. "But the big issue
for the city right now is we need to focus our attention on Seattle
Center and make a proposal in the Legislature to revitalize that as
a regional center. The silver lining is we have an opportunity to
create an exciting venue at KeyArena."

Future uses of KeyArena could include setting up a permanent
display of the region's videogame and film industries, Licata said.
Executives at Microsoft Corp., RealNetworks Inc. and other
companies have complained of having few venues to showcase their
technology, and showed enthusiasm during a recent tour of KeyArena.

A pair of citizens' task force groups examined various options
for both Seattle Center and KeyArena. One suggestion for KeyArena
was spending about $20 million to upgrade the arena as a smaller,
downsized venue.

That option may become more probable if the Sonics move and the
arena's other main tenant, the Seattle Thunderbirds, vacates as
well.

The Thunderbirds, a junior hockey franchise in the Western
Hockey League, are in preliminary discussions with the southeast
Seattle suburb of Kent about becoming the main tenant in a proposed
6,500-seat, $35 million arena, Thunderbirds general manager Russ
Farrell said.

KeyArena, once it was renovated in the mid-90s, "was not a
great fit for us hockey-wise. It's so expensive a building for us
to play in," Farrell said. "I understand where the Sonics are
coming from with their lease."

Farrell has many of the same lease complaints that Schultz had.
Farrell said the Thunderbirds pay 2 1/2 times what anyone else in the
Western Hockey League pays for rent -- about $300,000 per year. Much
like NBA commissioner David Stern, who called the Sonics lease
agreement the worst in the NBA, Farrell believes the Thunderbirds
deal is the worst for any minor-league hockey team in North
America.

Farrell's frustration only increased when the Everett Silvertips
joined the WHL in 2003, playing in the brand new Everett Events
Center.

"They were able to build a state of the art building 30 miles
up the road with a market rate lease and they're doing well and we
can't even get close to that," Farrell said. "Everything that's
happened in the building has hurt us. Reality is, I don't think
we're a fit for them anymore."

The same question applies to the Sonics and Storm now.

"It has to be a mutual kind of relationship that will keep them
here," Seattle City Councilman David Della said. "Our hope is
that it works out and the Sonics and Storm stay beyond 2010."