SEATTLE -- Clay Bennett idly swirled and tipped a cup of
No, it wasn't from Starbucks -- the company whose chairman,
Howard Schultz, received $350 million from Bennett and his
co-investors in exchange for the NBA Seattle SuperSonics and WNBA
Seattle Storm last fall.
"Every time I go buy a cup of Starbucks my wife says, 'Haven't
you done enough for Howard?"' Bennett said Thursday, smiling over
his brew of ... Tully's.
Now Bennett is asking for King County taxpayers to do something
Make that, over 300 million somethings.
Bennett told Gov. Chris Gregoire in a letter Thursday he will
ask the state Legislature for at least $300 million in
state-authorized public funds, for what he later specified would be
a $500 million, multipurpose, suburban arena. Bennett later said
the plan will reach lawmakers by the end of the month.
"At the end of the day, it's up to leadership and the public if
they want such a facility," Bennett said in a one-hour interview
with The Associated Press. "If they want such a dynamic as a
world-class building, an NBA team we aspire to return to the elite
and win championships, potentially an NHL hockey team, world-class
concerts, political conventions, Final Fours, All-Star games, any
number of national and global caliber events, that will not be able
to be held here -- because there is not a capable facility in the
Bennett said the luxurious arena would be built in one of two
spots along Interstate 405, in south suburban Renton across the
street from a retail and housing development known as "The
Landing" or east of Seattle in Bellevue, along a business stretch
called "Auto Row." He said the new building would house not only
the Sonics and the Storm, but perhaps even the Grammy Awards.
It would include a minimum of 50 high-cost suites and would be
similar in design to, but larger than, Denver's seven-year-old
Pepsi Center, home to the NBA's Nuggets and the Avalanche of the
"I think there is a drop-dead deadline to have the best
proposal we can put together by the end of the month," Bennett
He had intended to have the proposal before the Legislature by
Jan. 8, when it convened. But difficulties with land acquisition,
infrastructure concerns, site accessibility -- not to mention the
issue of how it all gets paid for -- delayed the plan.
"What we have found is an extremely complex proposition,"
Bennett said of a concept he said will still not be complete when
it does finally reach the state capital.
Deadlines are just one of the challenges Bennett and his seven
co-investors, all prominent members of the Oklahoma City business
community, are facing in getting a new arena in the Puget Sound
But Seattle-area basketball fans face the most ominous hurdle of
all. Although Bennett restated his intent to keep the teams in the
region, his proposal still carries the not-so-veiled threat that
has hovered over the Sonics and Storm since his purchase of the
teams last year: without taxpayer money for a new arena, they will
leave for Oklahoma.
"We are committed to keeping the team here ... if we find the
right solution," he said.
If the public and lawmakers don't see Bennett's solution as
right -- and there are many local voices yelling it's wrong -- a
clause in Bennett's purchase agreement with Schultz allows the
teams to move if no arena deal is in place by Oct. 31, 2007.
Bennett and his co-investors are all prominent residents of
Oklahoma City, which has a relatively new arena, the Ford Center,
but no permanent major pro sports tenant.
"You want to go into any deal with flexibility," said Bennett,
the president of the Oklahoma City investment firm Dorchester
That flexibility includes fleeing the status quo. Not only did
Bennett reiterate that the Sonics' current home, KeyArena, will be
outdated within three years under the NBA's current economic model,
he said the Sonics will lose at least $20 million this season.
There's also the matter of general apathy about the Sonics, who
are 15-25 and have sunk to the bottom of the Northwest Division.
Seattle has sold out just two of 20 games this season inside its
17,072-seat home -- the first two home dates back in November.
"If we had a winner, it helps," Bennett said. "Look at the
Mariners' experience here."
Seattle's baseball team used a miraculous playoff drive in 1995
to secure legislative approval for a one-half of one percent
restaurant and rental car tax inside King County to pay for what is
now sparkling Safeco Field -- after voters rejected the idea.
Bennett wants the state to authorize extending use of that tax to
The restaurant tax, which generates $20 million annually, was
scheduled to run through 2015. But the Safeco Field construction
bonds it is paying off will expire in 2012, said Trent House,
director of government affairs for the Washington Restaurant
The association does not want the tax extended, but would
support letting it continue until 2015 because Bennett and his
group have pledged to at least match and probably well exceed that
$60 million, House said.
Bennett wouldn't comment on how much money the team would
contribute to the total project, saying his group is still trying
to get realistic estimates on how much revenue a new arena would
State Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said the
Sonics need to swiftly put their proposal together to have a shot
Brown's first reaction to the $300 million in public money the
Sonics are asking for?
"That sounds like a lot of money to me. [But] we really need to
see a specific plan. ... A lot of senators don't want to see the
Sonics leave the region."
State House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, earlier said the
session will be focused on more important issues like schools and
health care and jobs.