Voters approve $121.6 million in arena upgrades to lure NBA team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma City voters approved a sales tax extension Tuesday to fund $121.6 million in improvements to a downtown arena and build a practice facility in hopes of luring an NBA team.
The proposal received support from 44,849 voters, or 62 percent of those who cast ballots, according to final results from the Oklahoma County Election Board.
The plan calls for a one-penny sales tax to be extended by 15 months to pay for $97 million in upgrades to the Ford Center and another $24.6 million for a brand new NBA practice facility.
"I think we're really set up to get an NBA team. I know people want to know which one and when, and I don't have the answer to those questions," Mayor Mick Cornett said. "There's a process to this, and that process is going to play out. You can't circumvent the process. We have to be patient and see what happens."
The Seattle SuperSonics, owned by Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett, are seeking to relocate to the city. NBA owners will vote on the relocation request next month, but the SuperSonics owners' effort to break their lease in Seattle is still pending in federal court.
"I think it's a strong sign of support for the NBA and we're gratified by it," NBA commissioner David Stern said Wednesday night in Salt Lake City before the Jazz hosted the Timberwolves.
"I would never make any odds on any litigation, other than to say I think that the odds are increasing that the team will go to Oklahoma City, but if I were a betting man I wouldn't bet on the exact timing of it."
Bennett issued a statement Tuesday night thanking Cornett, the city council and the chamber of commerce, which backed a campaign promoting the vote as a way to become a "Big League City."
"Above all, we are grateful to the citizens of Oklahoma City for their continued commitment to excellence," Bennett said.
The Ford Center opened in 2002 and hosted the New Orleans Hornets for two seasons following Hurricane Katrina. Average attendance for those games was more than 18,000, but the proposed upgrades were designed to help increase the arena's ability to generate revenue from multiple sources and also keep up with a new arena in Kansas City, Mo., and one under construction in Tulsa.
"What it did was basically assure we're going to hold our own on Big 12 tournaments and NCAA regionals," Cornett said. "We were in danger of slipping. If we didn't pass this, it was going to be tough for us to get those featured events. That's taken care of, no matter what else happens."
Less than 1½ hours after polls closed, Cornett announced expected victory to supporters at a watch party at a restaurant in the Bricktown entertainment district.
"You need places like this, you need those important infrastructure elements, you need a strong arts community and you also need to have a sporting presence," Cornett said.
"I couldn't tell you how proud I am that we're creating this complete picture. We really are creating a city where people want to be. This a golden age in Oklahoma City. I think some day we'll be able to look back and people will realize it."
The Ford Center was built using funds from a similar sales tax plan that also raised money to build a minor league ballpark and transform a warehouse district into the city's bustling Bricktown entertainment district. It also hosts a minor league hockey franchise and an arena football team.
The Hornets' temporary stay was the city's first chance to host a professional team from one of the four major league sports.
"I think that the Hornets hooked a lot of people on the NBA. A lot of people follow it now," said Greater Oklahoma City Chamber president Roy Williams. "I believe that this is going to be a renewal sort of unlike we've seen. I think people are going to begin tracking and paying more and more attention that it could be soon that it's announced we're going to be an NBA city."
Planned upgrades include restaurants, clubs, suites and new locker rooms. If no team relocates to Oklahoma City before June 2009, the sales tax will run out after 12 months and the practice facility and any NBA-specific improvements to the Ford Center will not be built.
"The Sonics are in Seattle, and the Sonics can stay in Seattle. That's in the hands of Seattle," Williams said. "Seattle can still keep their team if they're willing to do what it takes to pay for it.
"It's not ours to win. It's Seattle's to lose."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press