Owner: New Sonics arena would cost $500 million

Updated: January 26, 2007, 3:59 AM ET
Associated Press

SEATTLE -- Clay Bennett idly swirled and tipped a cup of coffee.

No, it wasn't from Starbucks -- the company whose chairman, Howard Schultz, received $350 million from Bennett and his co-investors in exchange for the NBA Seattle SuperSonics and WNBA Seattle Storm last fall.

"Every time I go buy a cup of Starbucks my wife says, 'Haven't you done enough for Howard?"' Bennett said Thursday, smiling over his brew of ... Tully's.

Now Bennett is asking for King County taxpayers to do something for him.

Make that, over 300 million somethings.

Bennett told Gov. Chris Gregoire in a letter Thursday he will ask the state Legislature for at least $300 million in state-authorized public funds, for what he later specified would be a $500 million, multipurpose, suburban arena. Bennett later said the plan will reach lawmakers by the end of the month.

"At the end of the day, it's up to leadership and the public if they want such a facility," Bennett said in a one-hour interview with The Associated Press. "If they want such a dynamic as a world-class building, an NBA team we aspire to return to the elite and win championships, potentially an NHL hockey team, world-class concerts, political conventions, Final Fours, All-Star games, any number of national and global caliber events, that will not be able to be held here -- because there is not a capable facility in the region today."

Bennett said the luxurious arena would be built in one of two spots along Interstate 405, in south suburban Renton across the street from a retail and housing development known as "The Landing" or east of Seattle in Bellevue, along a business stretch called "Auto Row." He said the new building would house not only the Sonics and the Storm, but perhaps even the Grammy Awards.

It would include a minimum of 50 high-cost suites and would be similar in design to, but larger than, Denver's seven-year-old Pepsi Center, home to the NBA's Nuggets and the Avalanche of the NHL.

"I think there is a drop-dead deadline to have the best proposal we can put together by the end of the month," Bennett said.

He had intended to have the proposal before the Legislature by Jan. 8, when it convened. But difficulties with land acquisition, infrastructure concerns, site accessibility -- not to mention the issue of how it all gets paid for -- delayed the plan.

"What we have found is an extremely complex proposition," Bennett said of a concept he said will still not be complete when it does finally reach the state capital.

Deadlines are just one of the challenges Bennett and his seven co-investors, all prominent members of the Oklahoma City business community, are facing in getting a new arena in the Puget Sound area.

But Seattle-area basketball fans face the most ominous hurdle of all. Although Bennett restated his intent to keep the teams in the region, his proposal still carries the not-so-veiled threat that has hovered over the Sonics and Storm since his purchase of the teams last year: without taxpayer money for a new arena, they will leave for Oklahoma.

"We are committed to keeping the team here ... if we find the right solution," he said.

If the public and lawmakers don't see Bennett's solution as right -- and there are many local voices yelling it's wrong -- a clause in Bennett's purchase agreement with Schultz allows the teams to move if no arena deal is in place by Oct. 31, 2007. Bennett and his co-investors are all prominent residents of Oklahoma City, which has a relatively new arena, the Ford Center, but no permanent major pro sports tenant.

"You want to go into any deal with flexibility," said Bennett, the president of the Oklahoma City investment firm Dorchester Capital.

That flexibility includes fleeing the status quo. Not only did Bennett reiterate that the Sonics' current home, KeyArena, will be outdated within three years under the NBA's current economic model, he said the Sonics will lose at least $20 million this season.

There's also the matter of general apathy about the Sonics, who are 15-25 and have sunk to the bottom of the Northwest Division. Seattle has sold out just two of 20 games this season inside its 17,072-seat home -- the first two home dates back in November.

"If we had a winner, it helps," Bennett said. "Look at the Mariners' experience here."

Seattle's baseball team used a miraculous playoff drive in 1995 to secure legislative approval for a one-half of one percent restaurant and rental car tax inside King County to pay for what is now sparkling Safeco Field -- after voters rejected the idea. Bennett wants the state to authorize extending use of that tax to the Sonics.

The restaurant tax, which generates $20 million annually, was scheduled to run through 2015. But the Safeco Field construction bonds it is paying off will expire in 2012, said Trent House, director of government affairs for the Washington Restaurant Association.

The association does not want the tax extended, but would support letting it continue until 2015 because Bennett and his group have pledged to at least match and probably well exceed that $60 million, House said.

Bennett wouldn't comment on how much money the team would contribute to the total project, saying his group is still trying to get realistic estimates on how much revenue a new arena would create.

State Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said the Sonics need to swiftly put their proposal together to have a shot at passage.

Brown's first reaction to the $300 million in public money the Sonics are asking for?

"That sounds like a lot of money to me. [But] we really need to see a specific plan. ... A lot of senators don't want to see the Sonics leave the region."

State House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, earlier said the session will be focused on more important issues like schools and health care and jobs.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press