A new KeyArena is coming to Seattle Center.
After years of negotiations, the city is now in the final stages of approving Oak View Group's (OVG) $700 million renovation of the historic venue. If all goes according to plan, the Los Angeles company will spend the next two years excavating millions of pounds of concrete from under KeyArena's historic roof and then building a gleaming new arena underneath it. By 2020, a professional hockey team will likely be skating in Seattle Center. And if you listen to city leaders, the Seattle SuperSonics will hopefully be returning shortly thereafter.
This is the kind of deal that cities supposedly dream of. Last year, city council member Debora Juarez said Seattle will score "a world-class arena at little or no cost to the taxpayers." Everyone from Mayor Jenny Durkan to OVG's executives have consistently connected the dots between KeyArena's redevelopment and the Sonics' eventual return home. Eight years after we lost our NBA team because we wouldn't build them a new facility, we now have a private company paying to bring a team back.
But not really. We aren't getting this new venue for free, and it doesn't look like the Sonics will ever call it home.
While OVG is putting up the money to pay for the construction—including cost overruns, which are already at $100 million—the city is paying the company a wealth of benefits. The city will give OVG revenues from three parking garages surrounding the site. Seattle will also wave or reduce property, sales, business, and admission taxes for the company. And the naming rights for the arena will go straight into OVG's pocket.
We're talking about millions of public dollars per year being used to fund a private company's bottom line. Chris Hansen's rival group—which wants to build its own NBA arena in Sodo—estimates that OVG will bank more than $464 million in public benefits during its 39-year lease.
By the city's own estimate, OVG is getting a sweetheart deal. Seattle voters passed an initiative in 2006 requiring the city to get a "fair value" on all future arena deals, with fair defined as the current rate for US 30-year Treasury bonds. But this OVG deal didn't meet that threshold, so the city council just waived that law.
The council overrode this "fair value" requirement because, in their words, OVG is providing "sufficient and fair" benefits to the city. What are these benefits? The first line of the city's agreement with OVG reads: "To attract and present music, entertainment, and sports events, potentially including [the] National Basketball Association."
But a return of the Sonics is far from guaranteed, and some analysts think the new arena is unlikely to attract the NBA. No teams currently look likely to move, so Seattle would need to convince the NBA to create a new team, which is something the league's owners have publicly opposed. And even if the league were to expand, KeyArena wouldn't be the NBA's first pick, according to ESPN sportswriter Brian Windhorst.
Windhorst thinks the revamped arena won't be profitable enough for an NBA franchise, because any future basketball team would need to share the city's benefits package and other revenues with a hockey team.
OVG still has a few more hoops to jump through for its redevelopment plan, including the difficulties of building a new arena underneath a historic roof. But if they pull it off, they will bring new life into an iconic Seattle building and ensure that KeyArena, a symbol of the 1962 World's Fair, lives on well into this new century.
Just don't think they are doing it for free or that they will necessarily get the Sonics back in the process.