With the Seattle City Council getting closer and closer to approving the renovation of KeyArena, the Sodo project needs to come up with some big money or delay the vote until it does.
Inside sports business
Unless he can cut a $2 billion check like Steve Ballmer, the latest addition to a group hoping to build a new arena in the city’s Sodo District won’t be the game-changer it needs.
But adding Aaron Pickus last week as a media liaison does signal that entrepreneur Chris Hansen and his Sodo project aren’t going away. In fact, it’s clear the Sodo group intends to intensify recent messaging efforts about its plan deserving another look.
On Monday, the Seattle City Council’s Select Committee on Civic Arenas meets for the first time since being handed a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on a $600 million plan to renovate KeyArena.
That committee, co-chaired by Debora Juarez and Bruce Harrell, is overseeing the council’s review of the renovation deal between Oak View Group (OVG) and the city. And that’s the only proposal the council appears prepared to look at.
Councilmember Tim Burgess, appearing last week on the City Inside/Out program on Seattlechannel.org, was asked, by host Brian Callahan, whether Hansen’s project could get a “fair shake” and fresh look while the council reviews the KeyArena deal.
“No,’’ Burgess replied. “We already gave Chris Hansen a fair shake. We entered into an agreement with him. We negotiated that agreement with him several years ago and it had a list of prerequisites. One of them being ‘You need to get an NBA team awarded to Seattle before this project can advance.’ That hasn’t happened. So, we’re looking at KeyArena now.’’
Hansen’s group wants the city to revisit a May 2016 council vote not to sell him part of Occidental Avenue South to make his project “shovel ready’’ to attract teams and investors. This year, he offered to drop a public funding component from his original 2012 deal with the city and go all-private.
Hansen more recently offered to renovate KeyArena into a downsized music and concert facility if his Sodo arena gets built. But such amendments do not constitute a new proposal, meaning the 2012 agreement remains and will expire Dec. 3 without that missing NBA team.
The city wants the council to ratify the KeyArena deal immediately upon expiration of Hansen’s pact. It’s widely expected the National Hockey League will follow with a Seattle expansion announcement.
And having a renovated arena and NHL team — and a concert revenue stronghold via its LiveNation partnership — would give OVG an enormous, possibly insurmountable, edge over Sodo in landing any future NBA squad.
So, if you’re Hansen, convincing the council to postpone any KeyArena vote should be a prime objective. How to do that? Well, the city had a bit of a crisis last week when Mayor Ed Murray resigned over sexual abuse allegations.
There’s some concern that with city affairs influx, the council won’t have time to do proper KeyArena diligence.
It’s at least a toehold for the Hansen group. Enter newcomer Pickus, onetime spokesman for former Mayor Mike McGinn and most recently the Seattle Partners group, which pulled out of the bidding to renovate KeyArena after it appeared it was going to lose to OVG.
Pickus knows about media messaging on arenas, something the Sodo group has tried with limited success. Sure, its lobbyists have scored points with a segment of sports fans. But they’ve been less successful wooing the greater population and especially elected officials and senior bureaucrats who already know the arena saga well and see where Sodo is lacking.
One mistaken belief about the 5-4 council vote against Hansen 16 months ago is that he only needs to “flip” one council member in any future Occidental vote to reverse the outcome. That overlooks how council members initially didn’t even want to hold that 2016 vote — until Murray allegedly strong-armed them into it — claiming it was premature because Hansen lacked an NBA team to trigger his deal.
Even some council members that voted “yes’’ in Hansen’s favor doubted he’d secure an NBA team by December’s deadline. Burgess was a “yes’’ voter, but sure doesn’t sound committed to Hansen these days.
And for good reason.
Without teams, the Sodo plan doesn’t work. When Ballmer left the group to buy the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion in 2014, much of the Sodo project’s money vanished.
OVG has the billion-dollar backstopping of Madison Square Garden Co., of multibillionaire David Bonderman and the world’s top concert promoter in LiveNation, to build an arena before teams are acquired. The Sodo group does not.
With OVG, the city envisions getting KeyArena renovated now and having the NHL here by October 2020.
But Hansen has no NHL ownership partner. And he might have to wait five years for even a shot at getting an NBA team to trigger events that would lead to a Sodo arena being built.
Faced with that choice, city officials aren’t exactly rushing to Hansen’s side. They see a rival group with greater financial clout offering a ready-to-go plan that doesn’t require help.
Hansen seemingly needs a game-changer: Either an NHL or NBA franchise partner, or a billionaire investor to help build the Sodo arena “on spec” and survive without teams in the interim.
If not, he needs that council vote on KeyArena pushed off to next year. For one, it would give his group time to find missing ingredients.
And maybe a new mayor asks different KeyArena questions and delays the process further. Maybe the NHL gets tired of waiting and expands to Houston instead and further lets Hansen back in the game.
You never know.
Not sure what media messaging new Sodo hire Pickus will put out on Hansen’s behalf. But touting the need for the council to apply the brakes on KeyArena while city hall navigates a crisis seems as good a place as any to start.