There are multiple options on the table for bringing professional basketball and hockey to Seattle and Mayor Ed Murray told “Brock and Salk” on Tuesday that he his open to all of them. Whether that means building a new arena in SoDo or renovating KeyArena, Murray said it’s his responsibility to consider everything.
“I would love to be the mayor that brings the Sonics back and brings hockey to this city,” Murray said. “How many cities would have five teams in their downtown core, if that happened? I think very few. Secondly, we need a different entertainment center. The current KeyArena is old and outdated, so either there or somewhere else in this county is going to be an entertainment arena and I would like that to happen in the core of the city.”
Last week, Chris Hansen’s investment group announced that it would forego public funding to privately build a sports arena in SoDo. That new proposal involves private financing of a new arena instead of the city and county issuing about $200 million in bond financing, which would have been paid off through revenues from the building. Conditions of the offer include that the city agrees to vacate a one-block stretch of Occidental Avenue, waive the city’s admissions tax and have an adjustment made to the city’s B&O tax for revenue generated out of town.
The following day, one of Murray’s aides said that the city is exploring a major renovation of KeyArena, the former home of the Sonics. Murray announced on Oct. 27 that the city will issue a request for proposals (RFP) in January 2017 to solicit plans from private parties interested in redeveloping KeyArena. Proposals are to be centered around developing an “entertainment facility that can host meetings, concerts and sporting events.”
Murray said he will meet with Hansen’s group and decide whether there is a way to move forward and reopen negotiations in a way that the result will be approved by the council. He also plans to ask that the proposals for KeyArena be made within a few months of issuing the RFP in January. He said he hopes to have an idea about all of the viable options by “May-ish.”
While some have speculated Murray is leveraging the two sides, he said Tuesday that he has been upfront about the situation to Hansen and his group ever since the City Council denied their request to vacate Occidental Avenue in May of 2016.
“I think it’s interesting that both groups are basically ready to move,” Murray said. “We’re not playing one off against each other. We’re keeping people basically informed that there was interest out there on all sides.”
While Hansen’s group has offered to privately fund the SoDo site, KeyArena is on city property. Murray called the arena a city asset and said the outdated facility will be receiving public money for improvements, whether it’s the home of sports teams or not. He believes he has a “responsibility” to make KeyArena work financially.
“If an arena goes somewhere else, which may happen, you’re not going to have two venues that attract music and other smaller events in the city,” he said. “It’s all going to one, so we have to figure out if KeyArena is functional as a place for sports and entertainment, and if it’s not functional, we need to figure out where we go from there.”
Murray said he went to visit with NBA officials on the East Coast after his first year as mayor and was told that Seattle is a great market but that the city was not in the Association’s business market immediate plans and that it wouldn’t support poaching from another market. The mayor said his major lesson from the “eye-opening experience” was that Seattle’s enthusiasm was “a little ahead of where the reality of the NBA is.”
Murray said that the arena issue is “pretty important” to him but is not atop his list of priorities as mayor.
“We’re engaged with the school district right now. We had an education summit. We’re trying to find a way to partner with the school district because literally 40 percent of African Americans in this city do not graduate or do not graduate on time,” he said. “Those numbers are exactly what they were 20 years ago. That’s a bigger priority to see how the city can step up and be a bigger partner with the school district. We, like every West Coast city, have a homeless crisis here. That is actually more important to me than this, but this is up there in probably the top-10 things I’d like to see happen in this city.”
Former Mayor Mike McGinn was active in leading the fight to get the arena deal done. Is Murray prepared to do the same?
“Yeah, but I’ll lead it in a different way,” he said. “I’ll lead it in a way that tries to get people in the same place versus what I believe was a process that basically drove people into the corners shooting at each other.”
Other highlights from the interview:
On critics who say KeyArena can’t work for professional sports: “I have no technical knowledge about what would work or not work at KeyArena.”
His thoughts on the council’s refusal to vacate Occidental: “I like to point out this was not a deal that I put together. It was an agreement the city reached before I became mayor. I said before the campaign of 2013 I would honor it. We honored it, we worked it through and brought it through council. (Hansen’s) folks believed they had the votes; it didn’t turn out that way. It sort of makes me a little detached in that I can look at the deal and kind of look at the situation. I think the challenge with the way the deal was put together, it was put together in a pretty contentious way. We’ve got the Port (of Seattle) fairly angry, we have some labor unions angry, some businesses in that area not happy; that’s not how I approach things. I would have put together the deal differently and, as you know, Hansen’s group has come forward with a different proposal, which means we would have to open the contract and renegotiate it. One of the key pieces for me is we’ve got to find a way to get everybody on the same table.”
On the possibility of a public-private partnership at KeyArena: “Potentially. Unless somebody comes in and says, ‘We can finance this whole thing and here’s the deal.’ Again, the time I spent with mayors around the country, the thing I’ve learned is even when people say we’re going to privately finance the whole thing, they still want something from the public sector.”
What he learned from “sports politics”: “In sports politics, no one ever seems to ever lay their cards on the table, which is different. Makes it very hard to be transactional. It’s like, here’s the deal, you want to make a deal, this is what we need you to do.”
Traffic concerns: “Both locations have traffic concerns. If ST3 passes, a decade and a half from now, there will be a light-rail station (in Seattle Center), which would be an answer a decade and a half from now, but not now. So if something’s gonna happen at KeyArena and Seattle Center, there needs to be significant traffic mitigation that whoever the private party who wants to come in would have to provide to make that corridor work. Same thing, basically, to a lesser extent, I think applies to SoDo. There are significant traffic concerns. It is an area that’s a transit hub with the light-rail station and the Amtrak stations there, and the buses all coming to one spot, but there are other issues around freight that have got to be solved and, quite honestly, I don’t believe they’ve been solved.”
On what is needed: “I think a lot is going to be driven to, does somebody have a team? Can somebody bring a hockey team as a model before a basketball team? Give us an idea here. Just ‘build it and they will come,’ I’m not sure I can get council votes on that kind of idea.”
On his legacy: “Often when I listen or look at sports blogs, I see a lot of stuff about who gay men are, and having been the first gay mayor of this city, I would love to be the guy who actually brought these teams home and shut some of those people down.”
His parting message: “I want to make sure that we can get an arena that will get basketball and hockey here. Having said that, I can’t actually bring the team here. I can help and the city can be a partner in the development of an arena, but the thing that we’re not going to be able to do as a city is buy that team, so someone needs to tell us when the NBA is ready to bring us a team.”