[Ed. Note: This article originally appeared at TheHockeyWriters.com and was written by Walter McLaughlin.]
There aren’t many cities that would seriously consider turning their backs on an investment of nearly $300 million in private capital within their boundaries, particularly during trying economic times. However, if a cobbled-together coalition of strange-bedfellow opponents get their way, that’s exactly what could happen to hedge fund manager Chris Hansen’s $490 million arena proposal.
The Arena Plan
The investment group, led by Seattle native Hansen and including Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer as well as Erik and Peter Nordstrom, has pledged $290 million in cash toward the arena, as well as upwards of $500 million in additional capital to buy both an NHL and NBA team. To garner public and political support, Hansen’s group has established the web site SonicsArena.com.
The arena would be multipurpose in nature, built to house approximately 18,000 fans for a single event, and designed specifically to acquire both an NHL as well as NBA team. The emotional quotient for Seattle is the potential return of the Sonics, who left for Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season. In a politically expedient (yet wholly unsatisfying) settlement to a lawsuit that paved the way for the team’s departure, Seattle retained the rights to the name “Sonics” and, if the plan were to be successful, would acquire and rename an existing NBA team to serve as anchor tenant. Although the Sonics are the rally point to the movement, the entrance of the NHL to the nation’s 12th largest market is an intriguing lure, as the area has a hockey history going back over 100 years, with the former Seattle Metropolitans being the first American team to play in (1915-16) as well as win (1916-17) the Stanley Cup.
After receiving blessing by both the mayor as well as King County Executive Dow Constantine, an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) was executed between the City, County and the new group to build an arena in the “SoDo” region of Seattle, subject to due diligence and approval by the two councils. Hansen’s discussion of the MOU can be seen here.
Politics in Seattle, much like many other cities across the country, seems to suffer as much from paralysis and divisiveness as any other affliction.
Hansen patiently answered questions by the King County Council on June 19th, as well as another two-and-a half hour session in front of the Seattle City Council the very next day. A central theme brought up by King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, along with Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata, was the question of the necessity of a public vote. “We did it for the Seahawks, we did it for the Mariners and I think we should do it again for the Sonics,” he said during the council meeting. Hansen was ready with his response: “I think, Pete, that the public already had a vote and it’s called I-91 (an initiative passed by voters requiring a certain minimum profit for government involvement in public/private partnerships). “Government would be dysfunctional if we had a public vote for every single issue. That’s why we elect representatives.”
Although they have not officially declared their opposition, von Reichbauer and Licata are considered likely adversaries, as Licata was a vocal foe when the Sonics were threatening to leave in 2007, and von Reichbauer has already attempted to advance the notion (since debunked) that the arena would violate current city codes. Despite the project having been deemed the third-most equity-rich of its type in the U.S., political opponents are challenging the assertion that the arena is truly self-funded from user fees and adequately protects the taxpayers. Deep down, the mere notion of governmental assistance of professional sports, even if the repayment source is user-generated, may be the driving factor.