Tim Leiweke on proposed KeyArena remodel vs Chris Hansen’s SoDo plan: ‘This is not a competition’
Tim Leiweke, who heads the Oak View group that wants to redevelop KeyArena, told “Brock and Salk” that he and Chris Hansen’s investment team are all working toward the same goal of bringing the NBA and/or the NHL to Seattle. And, in the end, that might mean working together.
“What I would suggest is, nothing’s going away in the next six months,” Leiweke said in an in-studio visit on Wednesday. “Let’s take a deep breath, let’s bring the smartest people that we could possibly find to analyze whether or not Seattle Center and an arena can work there and if it does, we are prepared to go finance it and fund it privately without a franchise. We will make it work standalone on all the other events. That’s the key. You’ve got to get it going, you’ve got to get it built and then the leagues chase you; you’re not chasing the leagues. And if, at that point, Chris wants an NBA team, he’s more likely to get one and he can take it. Not only will we not stand in his way, we will do everything humanly possible to make it work economically.”
Leiweke and Lance Lopes, the Oak View group’s new director of special projects who also spoke with KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson on Tuesday, discussed the group’s plans for KeyArena and their hopes to turn it into a venue that could host the Sonics and/or a hockey team while also serving as a place to host live music and entertainment. The development group is among those that will be jockeying to prove it has the best arena option. They are countered by Hansen’s Seattle Arena Group that is attempting to convince the city council and mayor to allow them to privately pay for and build a new arena in SoDo.
This is not a competition, though, according to Leiweke. He said that his group jumped into this because “we’re here eight and 10 years later still talking about trying to get a franchise.”
“If a franchise came, we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “We are fans of Chris. We are friends with Chris. I admire Chris and (SoDo partner Wally Walker). This is not a competition and we’ve made it very clear. We have no intention, our purpose here is not to own the team. Our purpose here is to help bring a team here. One of my partners is Madison Square Garden. They already own an NBA team and they already own an NHL team, so we are prohibited from owning a team. We want to be the catalyst so this might be the best day Chris ever had because we might be able to solve the facility issue without him spending $700 million or $800 million. And so we don’t want to stand in Chris’ way and, in fact, we want to encourage Chris, and if you look at the process in the last two months, the reality is the deal is only going to get better for the taxpayers and only going to get better for Seattle because that’s what competition will do. This is a friendly competition and our goal is actually Chris’ goal. And Chris, Wally, myself and Lance, we agree on one thing: We’d like to see the return of the NBA or the NHL.”
Leiweke has been a part of building 18 arena and stadium projects, including the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Sprint Center in Kansas City and the O2 Arena in London. Leiweke didn’t want to associate the name KeyArena with the Seattle project, instead choosing to refer to it as Seattle Center Arena.
“People keep on saying you can’t do a renovation,” he said. “This is more than a renovation. This is a complete rebuild. That’s what you have to do to that building. This is not touching up the concourse and putting in new seats.”
Leiweke said six months of studying – on the private sector dime – is a realistic time frame for a definitive answer on the viability of this rebuild. He said the indication from Mayor Ed Murray was that he wants to make the decision shortly after that. If the determination is that a rebuild isn’t viable, he said it “cleans up the political agenda” and that everyone can then get behind the Hansen team’s vision.
“If it does work, then private sector will be able to spend the money and he can pursue his team,” Leiweke said.
If the KeyArena rebuild is viable and OVG wins the mayor’s Request for Proposal, Leiweke said there will be an environmental study – which has already been looked at in the alternative site study for the Seattle Arena study – and designs would be created, with hopes of starting construction within a year from then. He used the summer of 2018 as an example time frame.
“There are no more politics,” he said. “The politics are going to get flushed out in the next six months. The RFP is going to request a proposal for a deal with the city on how to go privately build and take the risk on a massive renovation of the Seattle Center Arena.”
Leiweke also noted that he has close ties with NBA and NHL commissioners Adam Silver and Gary Bettman. He wouldn’t speak on their behalf but said those two are very aware of what they are working on and that the development companies are respected commodities, noting that ICON is the same group building the new Milwaukee Bucks stadium.
“No one has as good a relationship probably as we do with the NBA and NHL,” he said. “I’ve been part of that family for almost 40 years and we would not be here today if the commissioners of both leagues weren’t exactly on board and aware of what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis. We stay in touch with them on our intentions. We will never get ahead of the commissioners. It is up to them and the board of governors on the NHL and the NBA to decide what happens to their teams and we will follow that lead, but we are consensus builders.”
Leiweke said his group will be speaking Thursday about all the options for KeyArena with Tim Romani, the principal of ICON Venue Group, and Chris Carver of POPULOUS, which, according to Leiweke, are responsible for building more arenas and stadiums than anyone else.
“I don’t know whether or not at the end of the day the footprint could be expanded, the capacity could be expanded and the square footage can ultimately be expanded in order to meet the minimum standards of the NBA and the NHL, but I know Tim Romani and I know Chris Carver, and they are the two smartest guys I know about arenas and they tell me they believe it could be done,” Leiweke said. “And they’re going to do an exhaustive project here and we’re going to put in literally seven figures in order to make sure that we flush this out to see if we, in fact, can build a world-class arena that will be acceptable to the NHL and the NBA at the Seattle Center.”
Other highlights from the conversation:
On the potential for working together: “We are not here to ultimately rain on their parade. This is not an us-against-them scenario. This is, Seattle is a phenomenal music marketplace, Seattle is a phenomenal sports marketplace. We’re prepared to take a private risk and build an arena without an anchor tenant, which, in that case, means the leagues are chasing you; you’re not chasing the leagues. And that’s how you get teams.”
On the importance of building a music venue: “Folks, this is Seattle. This is one of the single best music markets around and part of what’s been lost in the argument is because of the passion of sports, people make this about the NBA or the NHL. Well, guess what, there’s not a great music venue here either and there’s 40 to 50 nights of music minimum.”
Can the city sustain two world-class facilities? “No. We wouldn’t build ours if they built theirs. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t build theirs if we had ours up and going. That’s why we have a good relationship with them. What we’re not going to get into here is a nuclear war. We’re going to do this the right way, we’re going to do this with the best interest of the city and we’re going to do this with the best interest of the future of the city.”
On NBA or NHL expansion: “We’re not losing out on an opportunity. Everybody needs to understand. It’s not like there’s a franchise out there right now that says they are in trouble or they’re moving. There is not, so nothing is gonna happen. Both the NBA and NHL made that very clear.”
Who would own the Seattle Center Arena? “This is Seattle’s facility and if the mayor decides that, at the end of the day, the citizens still own it but the private sector has to take the risk, then that’s the direction and the path we will follow and we are up to that. We understand that the burden of making this work – whether it’s building it or operating it, is going to be the private burden. We get that.”