Arts groups in King County have a message for the Seattle SuperSonics and Mayor Greg Nickels: not so fast. Arts groups want future hotel-tax revenues that the NBA team and the...

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Arts groups in King County have a message for the Seattle SuperSonics and Mayor Greg Nickels: not so fast.

Arts groups want future hotel-tax revenues that the NBA team and the mayor intend to use for a $180 million renovation of KeyArena. And arts advocates plan to state their case forcefully.

Since 1990, arts and cultural groups in King County have received financial support from hotel-tax revenues.

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“I don’t know if our theater would have been built without this tax,” said Steve Lerian, executive director of the Kirkland Performance Center.

This year, $6 million in hotel-tax revenues will flow to 190 arts and culture groups in King County.

Arts advocates planned to ask the Legislature to dedicate the tax solely to their work when it is set to expire in 2020 after helping to pay for construction of Qwest Field.

But the Sonics surprised arts groups when they revealed Thursday that they will probably lobby lawmakers next year to redirect the tax toward KeyArena. Arts groups are organizing a counteroffensive.

“We see this is as an opportunity for the public sector to say the arts matter. If we extend the hotel tax for the Sonics, we’re saying sports is more important, and that’s a blow to the entire arts community,” said Jim Kelly, executive director of 4Culture, King County’s cultural-development authority.

Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata has offered to head a coalition of arts and culture groups pursuing the hotel tax. Before he was elected to the council in 1997, Licata led a group called Citizens for More Important Things that opposed public financing for Seattle’s new stadiums for professional baseball and football.

“Arts groups are more dependent on this revenue stream than the Sonics. To me, the community also gets more bang for the buck by spreading this money among almost 200 groups than one team,” Licata said.

Licata said part of the challenge facing arts groups is that they tend to be homegrown and rooted in their communities, so unlike some sports teams, they can’t threaten to leave if they don’t get their way.

David Brewster, director of Town Hall, a civic and cultural center in Seattle, said arts groups have had designs on capturing more hotel-tax money in the past only to be thwarted by a stadium crisis. First it was a new ballpark for the Mariners, then a new stadium for the Seahawks. Now it’s potential renovations for the Sonics.

“What worries me is one of these revenue streams being whisked away in a classic sports fire drill, which panics politicians and probably newspapers,” Brewster said.

“Arts groups need to stand together so we have a fair conversation and this is not a fait accompli.”

Sonics Vice President Terry McLaughlin stressed that the team is not threatening to leave Seattle when its lease with the city-owned KeyArena expires in 2010. McLaughlin said the team has lost $50 million in the past five years, despite having a low payroll by NBA standards, and needs to improve its balance sheet by adding more amenities such as bars, restaurants, function rooms and concessions to KeyArena.

The Sonics also want to work with the city to retire a $58 million debt from the 1995 remodeling of KeyArena. Having to help pay down that debt plays a part in preventing the Sonics from making profits, McLaughlin said.

“This ownership group is Seattle-based and is vested in this community. They are going to do everything they can to find a workable model. If this ownership can’t make it work, they won’t move the team, but they may be forced to sell it,” McLaughlin said.

And new owners might want to move the team, he added.

McLaughlin said the team doesn’t want to spark an arts-against-sports battle.

“The Sonics have no interest in competing with arts groups. I need to understand their expectations and positions. I still have homework to do,” he said.

McLaughlin said the Sonics and arts groups might end up splitting future hotel-tax revenues.

“I certainly don’t want to rule it out,” he said.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com