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Why Seattle arena deal should be given the green (and gold) light

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
Investor Chris Hansen, right, shakes hands with Seattle SuperSonics supporters Kris "Sonics Guy" Brannon, center, and David Brown on Wednesday, after a memorandum of understanding was signed in an effort to bring the NBA back to Seattle.

The proposal to build a new sports arena in Seattle is now open to public scrutiny now that the City of Seattle and King County have formalized their agreement with lead investor Chris Hansen.  The next step is to gain approval from the city and county councils.

KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel explains why he thinks the plan should move forward.

Taking government out of the game

Art says the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed this week by the City of Seattle, King County and Chris Hansen and his investment group looks like a fair deal.

"I think the risk to the taxpayers is minimal. And I think, most importantly for me, it gets government out of the building and operating of sports arenas. We've seen, in Seattle, the Kingdome fail after 24 years. We've seen the KeyArena be inadequate to maintain the Sonics. And we've seen relative successes of Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field because those buildings were built and operated by the private entities that run it and the city and the county stepped away."

Art says that's what's important about this deal. It's a $490 million project, of which $290 million is coming from private investment. $200 will be public money - from the sale of bonds.

"The public contribution is basically a loan. The payback is going to be out of revenues that the building generates. Meaning that there will be no new taxes to fund this; nor will there be a diversion of taxes from some other source to pay for this. I don't want to call it self-funding yet, simply because there are a lot of other issues - such as the site and the traffic problems that have to be mitigated - but from the standpoint of the building itself and its operations, as far as I can tell, it's a pretty safe deal."

In his column this week about the proposed arena agreement, Art talked to a county official who explains why the partnership between Hansen and the city and county is so beneficial for both sides.

Art points out that there are still some pretty big issues to be worked out - namely the traffic concerns raised by the Seattle Mariners, the Port of Seattle and other stakeholders in Seattle's SoDo neighborhood. He expects the city and county councils to heavily scrutinize the deal and allow the public to weigh in on it.

Hansen bleeds green and gold

Art interviewed Chris Hansen one-on-one for his website Sportspress Northwest. He says it appears Hansen's aim is true.

"I detected no hidden agenda here. He could be spending his time doing lots of other things making lots more money. But he genuinely has a passion for sports - basketball in particular. He was really offended when the Sonics left for Oklahoma City. And he has the wherewithal to do this."

Art says Hansen's proposal would lift a huge burden off the city's shoulders.

"If he takes the entertainment issue off the city's hands, the city never has to worry about that again. They will be dedicated to paying police and fire and filling potholes and doing what cities do best. They won't be in the entertainment business. They're going to loan some money. It's only 3% of the county's budget and I think 5% of the city's bonding capacity. So it's not overwhelming to either municipality but it does take maintenance and operations out of what the city does not do best. I think Hansen is genuine in his desire to do it and to not rip off the city."

If approved, how long must Sonics fans wait?

Art says the MOU is a five-year deal. That allows for some breathing room. But an arena deal recently fell through in Sacramento, so Art says there's about a 10% chance the Kings might be available this summer.

"The urgency is upon the councils and Hansen to try to get something done as quickly as possible. But the downside is it may take them five years to get a team here. So, no money will be spent until a team gets here, which is another safeguard and another smart thing."


Kirsten Kendrick has been hosting Morning Edition on KNKX/KPLU since 2006. She has worked in news radio for more than 30 years. Kirsten is also a sports lover. She handles most sports coverage at the station, including helping produce a two-part series on the 50th anniversary of Title IX and the ongoing series "Going Deep."
Art Thiel is a co-founder and writer for the rising sports website Sportspress Northwest. In 2003 Thiel wrote the definitive book about the Seattle Mariners, “Out of Left Field,” which became a regional bestseller. In 2009, along with Steve Rudman and KJR 950 afternoon host Mike Gastineau, Thiel authored “The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists,” a cross between and Mad Magazine that has become mandatory reading for any sports fan who has an indoor bathroom.
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