Larry Stone | With private financing, could this be a deal? You have to assume that Chris Hansen’s group has gone through back-channel means to gauge the possibility of an NBA expansion team, too.
It just got much, much harder to say no to Chris Hansen.
That’s not to say that naysayers will stop saying nay. It’s almost instinctual by now. And that’s not to say all potential road blocks have disappeared, because getting any new sports complex built in today’s environment is insanely complicated and fraught with red tape.
But in one grand gesture Tuesday, Hansen took away the most powerful reasons to oppose his five-year quest to build an arena in Sodo. He left his foes clutching air, like an Allen Iverson crossover.
At times, the project has seemed so close you could hear the sound of dribbling basketballs and squeaky sneakers. At times, it seemed so distant you could see the cranes and shovels heading out of town.
But now, once again — for the first time in a long, long time — it seems real. Tangible. Within reach.
We have learned by now that the finish line for this arena is an optical illusion, always shifting and moving, sometimes disappearing in plain sight. But Hansen’s proposal to privately fund the project in its entirety is a game-changer in every sense of the word.
Sure, there are still questions galore, not the least of which is where the billion-plus dollars needed to pull all this off will come from. Steve Ballmer’s not walking through that door (he already did once, then took the Los Angeles exit). There needs to be some clarity on that topic in the upcoming days from Hansen’s camp, to put some concrete details behind what now is an indistinct promise.
And, as Geoff Baker reports, Hansen’s proposal will not entirely cover the $27 million funding gap to build the traffic-alleviating Lander Street overpass. It merely redirects the $20 million Hansen already had pledged for Occidental Avenue.
Because the main objection of the Port of Seattle, and the neighboring Mariners, regards the influx of traffic to an already congested Sodo District, completion of the Lander overpass is a vital component. Yet it boggles the imagination to think that a few million dollars would be a deal-breaker to a group that already has ponied up hundreds of millions in pursuit of this project.
But by eliminating any semblance of public money — specifically, the $200 million in bond funding that was going to supplement Hansen’s investment — he has squelched the main source of opposition.
There are early indications that the Port will continue to oppose the arena. But Hansen doesn’t necessarily need to win over the Port. He needs to win over a majority of the Seattle City Council, which will be asked to re-vote on the Occidental Avenue street vacation that failed by a 5-4 vote in May.
If Hansen can sway just one vote — and you have to think that’s a realistic possibility, given Tuesday’s news — then he could conceivably soon be ready to put shovel in ground, provided the Port doesn’t muck things up with protracted legal action.
You could say the council’s opposition has been vindicated, because it squeezed out a much better deal for the city. Hansen’s letter Tuesday to Mayor Ed Murray, King County Executive Dow Constantine and city-council members details how the “economic landscape has changed” since the original proposition, prompting his change of heart. But the bottom line is that Hansen’s group has the wherewithal to fully fund the arena, and they have been forced to cop to that.
One can only assume that Hansen’s group has gone through back-channel means to gauge the possibility of NBA expansion. An arena without a team, after all, is just a building. The league won’t necessarily be happy with the prospect of a privately funded arena. Like every sports league, it loves the idea of coaxing as much public money as it can as precedent when its next partner needs a new venue — and that day is coming, eventually, for every team.
The indications are stronger than ever, however, that the NBA could be heading toward expansion. It is on the verge of an agreement on a new collective-bargaining agreement. When the season tipped off Tuesday, the NBA’s new nine-year, $24 billion contract with ESPN and Turner kicked in as well.
In other words, the league finally has its business ducks in a row and can now think about expanding. Though league owners might be loathe to share all that TV revenue with new owners, they certainly would enjoy an expansion fee that might reach $1 billion. And there have been rumors of escalator clauses in the new TV deal if the league expands.
One would think that Seattle, with its strong NBA history and now with prospects of a new arena, immediately would jump to the front of the line if and when expansion is green-lighted. The NHL already has made it clear that it would love to move to Seattle, even leaving an open spot in the Western Conference for a new franchise that would even out the two conferences.
The Memorandum of Understanding between Hansen and the city dictated that an NBA team would be the first order of business, which was problematic to the pursuit of a hockey team. Now that the MOU is off the table in the new proposal, Hansen is in position to find an NHL partner to own a prospective hockey team as a tenant in his new arena.
I’m reluctant to say this new proposal by Hansen is a win-win proposition, because there are plenty of people to point out all the losses they still see on the landscape. But for the legion of fans that just wants to see pro basketball and hockey in Seattle, victory appears closer than ever.