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Tax would go to improve Ford Center, in hopes of landing Sonics

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma City residents will vote March 4
on whether to levy a one-cent sales tax to pay for improvements at
Ford Center in hopes of luring an NBA team, the City Council
decided Wednesday.

The vote will take place about six weeks before NBA owners meet
to vote on an application by the Seattle SuperSonics to relocate to
Oklahoma City.

The tax would last for 15 months, starting on Jan. 1, 2009, the
day after a current one-cent sales tax used to fund school
improvements expires, and would generate an estimated $121.6
million. It would also pay for an NBA practice facility.

But the practice facility and other improvements planned
specifically for the NBA presence will not be built if a team does not
relocate to the city. In that event, the tax would be shortened to
12 months and would raise about $97 million.
Mayor Mick Cornett characterized the election as a referendum on
the NBA in Oklahoma City.
"I think people want it for this city," Cornett said after the
council's unanimous vote to schedule the election. An NBA team
would increase tourism in the city and have a positive economic
impact, Cornett said.

The efforts of the Sonics' Oklahoma City-based ownership group,
led by Clay Bennett, to move the team from Seattle has ended up in
federal 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. The team's lease in Seattle expires after the
2009-2010 season.

The Ford Center 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.

The building, which opened in 2002, cost about $89 million to
build.

If approved by voters, sales tax revenue would pay for a variety
of amenities that would vault the Ford Center to one of the finest
NBA venues in the U.S., said Donald R. Dethlefs Jr., president of
the sports architecture firm Sink Combs Dethlefs of Denver.

"I think it's going to compare very well," Dethlefs said.

The improvements include new restaurants, bars and concession
areas, a television studio suitable for team interviews, decorative
floors and walls, improved bathrooms, a warm-up court, and new
locker rooms.
Officials said the amenities would also make the Ford Center a
better building for concerts, the Big 12 basketball tournament and
other events. But some city council members and citizens worried
that taxpayers are being asked to pay more than their fair share to
bring an NBA team to the city.

Ward 2 council member Sam Bowman said asking taxpayers to build
a practice facility for the team"is just giving it to them on a
silver platter." He urged city officials who will negotiate a
lease with the NBA to insist that the team participate financially
in the project.

Teacher Ed Holzberger disagreed with using a sales tax to
finance the project, suggesting that a less regressive method, such
as a tax on NBA game tickets, would raise enough money.

Former state Rep. Wanda Jo Peltier Stapleton said tax dollars
should not be used"to pad the pockets" of team owners who are
capable to paying for the improvements themselves.

But many council members said it is in the city's best interest
to have an NBA team. Ward 4 council member Pete White predicted the
campaign for the tax will be about"cheerleaders and dunk shots"
and not the cost of the improvements.

"If we don't do it we will lose an opportunity to have the NBA
come," White said.

Ward 6 council member Ann Simank said a professional sports
franchise is vital for the city's prestige and future growth.

"I think this is really important to our city to get us
there," Simank said.