OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma City made its first major move toward permanently attracting an NBA franchise Thursday when Mayor Mick Cornett called for the public to support a proposal to spend more than $100 million to overhaul the Ford Center and build a practice facility.
Cornett accelerated plans for the vote by several months so it could be held prior to an April date when NBA owners are expected to consider a request by Seattle SuperSonics owner Clay Bennett to move his team to Oklahoma City.
"If we don't pass this election, we are not going to get a team," Cornett said. "If you look at the NBA's history, at relocated franchises, I can't think of one that went to a city that didn't have a commitment to a new arena long-term."
Cornett said the improvements would be paid for by extending a current one-penny sales tax for an additional 12 to 15 months. The City Council will consider plans for the election during its Jan. 2 meeting, and the proposed date for the vote would be March 4.
An exact cost for the upgrades should be finalized by the City Council meeting, when a consultant is expected to outline what changes are needed to the five-year-old Ford Center.
The building recently hosted the New Orleans Hornets for two seasons after Hurricane Katrina forced the team's temporary relocation, and average attendance was 18,329 -- about 1,000 below the arena's capacity.
Bennett announced in November that he would seek to relocate the SuperSonics, and the NBA Board of Governors is expected to consider the move at its April 17-18 meeting.
Cornett said the city had initially intended to include the Ford Center improvements in an initiative that would go to a vote late next year.
"We got to looking at the timing of this Board of Governors vote in April and realized that best intentions were not going to make it with the Board of Governors. They were going to need a firm financial commitment," Cornett said.
"Why should we expect an NBA franchise to make a long-term commitment to us when we're not willing to make a long-term commitment to the facility?" Cornett said.
Bennett's efforts to move the SuperSonics from Seattle has ended up in court, where a judge will decide whether the team must honor the final three years on its lease at KeyArena, the NBA's smallest venue.
"Mayor Cornett and the city have taken a visionary and appropriate step towards becoming an NBA city," Bennett said in a statement. "I applaud their leadership."
Dan Mahoney, a spokesman for Bennett, said the owner would have no further comment.
Cornett said he had spoken with the NBA and had preliminary discussions about a lease with the SuperSonics but the decision to seek public funding for the upgrades was not forced upon him. NBA commissioner David Stern said during an April visit that the Ford Center, which cost only $89 million to build, did not necessarily need upgrades to host an NBA team permanently.
"This is a choice that we're making. No one's making us do this," Cornett said. "I would say that this is an investment in Oklahoma City, this is an investment in an Oklahoma City-owned arena. We will own it. No one else is going to own these facilities that we're going to build with this money."
While the Ford Center was suitable for an NBA team on a temporary basis, Cornett said he believes upgrades are needed for a long-term arrangement. As for what changes would be made to the arena, he said "everything is on the table, everything about that building is going to be under study."
Cornett said a new NBA tenant would have input on the arena changes and in choosing a location for the practice facility.