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March 12, 2008

Opinion: We should say yes to Ballmer group's offer

DJC Publisher

Save our Sonics? How about save our Seattle Center.

In the best spirit of civic involvement, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Costco CEO Jim Sinegal, wireless executive John Stanton and developer Matt Griffin have stepped forward with a plan that would likely keep an NBA team in Seattle and bolster Seattle Center in the process.

What do you think?

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It's an offer the region should accept. The time has long passed when a city's wealthiest people came forward and put their money to work for the public. It's more typical these days for moneyed folks to play one city against another to see how much they can get.

That's what makes this group's offer so attractive. They have pledged to pay for half the cost of an expansion to KeyArena, a public facility that needs major improvements to bring in top concerts and events — with or without a basketball team.

Ballmer's group has put a April 10 deadline on its offer to pay $150 million towards a $300 million renovation of KeyArena. The group also said it will pursue purchasing the Sonics or another NBA team. The city is expected to contribute $75 million from admissions taxes and lease payments on the expanded facility. The other $75 million was to have come from the legislature authorizing that existing county restaurant and car rental taxes go toward the KeyArena project.

Time is short. The NBA will vote at its April 18-19 board of governors meeting on Clay Bennett's request to move the Sonics to Oklahoma City. Bennett may be allowed to move the team so if the region wants to entice the NBA to place another team in Seattle, the region needs to show it has a solid plan in place.

The taxpayers' contribution would be small compared to the benefits, and I don't just mean keeping an NBA team. A revamped arena is crucial to the future of Seattle Center. The Fun Forest is run-down and on the way out. Enhancing the arena could be a catalyst for the center's makeover. The city and county would likely regain much of the money in tax revenues over the next two decades.

This is not really about professional basketball. I haven't been to a game in 10 years. Frankly, I wouldn't miss the Sonics, but I would miss a vibrant Seattle Center.

When a group of civic-minded people step forward and offer to pay $150 million towards a public facility, we as a region should say yes.

The state legislature says it doesn't have time to adequately consider the group's offer. Gov. Chris Gregoire and legislative leaders have suggested Seattle use its bonding authority to cover the entire $150 million public commitment. While I'm sure this is not the city's preferred option, Mayor Greg Nickels and the city council should give this strong consideration. City leaders are understandably shy about public money benefitting billionaire sports team owners, but this group's offer is all about helping the region, not themselves.

An aging arena in the middle of an aging Seattle Center is not in Seattle's interest.

It could be possible for the city and Ballmer's group to work out a deal where each will commit $150 million to create a new arena. The city will end up with a great public facility and a revitalized Seattle Center. The investment group will likely wind up owning a NBA team, which is no great bargain for them. But that is the point: This prospective owners are not involved for their personal benefit. They are doing this as an act of civic involvement.


Phil Brown can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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