There is no guarantee that an NBA or NHL team will ever come to Seattle, but the head of the Oak View Group that is proposing to renovate KeyArena with private money said that is the best risk worth taking.
On Wednesday, a day after OVG’s director of special projects, Lance Lopes, explained on “The Dori Monson Show” the group’s plan to ease congestion from a rebuilt arena in Seattle Center, he was joined on “Brock and Salk” by CEO Tim Leiweke to discuss the proposed design and potential timeline.
Leiweke called it a “pretty simple” proposal that protects the KeyArena roof – which has been designated as a historic landmark – but guts the rest of the arena underneath. The finished product would have a 17,100-seat capacity for the NHL games, 18,500 seats for the NBA and 19,000 seats for concerts. He billed the cost at $564 million, which will be paid privately and with the understanding that there is no commitment from any professional team.
Leiweke asserted, though, that OVG wouldn’t be taking this on if it wasn’t confident that an NHL and/or NBA team will eventually move in.
“No matter what everyone says about NHL or NBA, here’s the reality: there’s no commitment a team’s coming,” Leiweke said. “We’re committed to building this based on a stand-alone building, based on not having any guarantees that a team is coming. We believe if we get it built, we will have the best chance possible of getting a team or two teams here. But we have to be prepared to operate this, to pay for this and make sense out of this based on not having an anchor tenant, and that’s what we’re gonna do.”
Formal proposals to redevelop KeyArena were due to the city by Wednesday. The other that was expected to be submitted in addition to OVG’s is from Anschutz Entertainment Group, which is scheduled to present its plan with 710 ESPN Seattle on Thursday. The city could also put its faith in the Seattle Arena Group, led by investor Chris Hansen, which wants to build a new arena in SoDo.
Leiweke said OVG’s proposal is a privately funded fix of KeyArena that offers “no risk” to taxpayers and is the best bet for enticing the NHL and/or NBA.
“I’ll take those odds because that’s really the only way we’re going to get a team,” he said. “And all due respect to Chris (Hansen), he’s not gonna get a team and then build the arena. That’s not gonna happen here. And so we have to do this based on the direction and the feedback we get from the leagues and the owners and that means we’re going to have to take a risk and there’s no guarantee that we won’t be sitting here 10 years from now with a building that doesn’t have an anchor tenant.
“But if it’s one of the top 10 buildings in the country, and the taxpayers didn’t have to take any risk, this is a good risk for the city, it’s a good risk for us. And if we didn’t think that there was a team coming here if we got this built and up and operating, we wouldn’t be doing this. But we understand there’s no guarantees in life, and we’re prepared to take that risk.”
Lopes said OVG will meet later this month with Mayor Ed Murray, his staff and an advisory committee Murray has set up. Lopes said OVG has been told that at some point before June 30, “the Mayor and his staff will make a decision either one way or the other, or potentially not at all.”
If OVG’s proposal is picked, and everything goes smoothly, Leiweke said the best-case scenario is for hockey, basketball and/or concerts to be playing in the renovated arena by October of 2020.
“So right now that’s our goal is to be in a position where the building is up and operating in October of 2020,” he said. “That means things have to go well. We’ve crafted this and designed this so we create a minimum positive impact toward the community.”
Leiweke said keeping the KeyArena roof intact is a major expense and that OVG wasn’t sure it could be done until about six weeks ago. What the engineers would do, he explained, is dig 15 feet down and add upwards of 300,000 square feet to the building, all below grade. They would create a “giant atrium” that he described as a “people-moving system” that would take patrons from the upper level, where they enter the building, down to the various levels of the building.
“By sinking it 15 feet, we can go out down below grade and down below the ground and not impact the historic landmark that the roof is currently,” he said.
They would add concessions, restrooms, locker rooms, seven docks and a parking garage that connects directly to the arena. The design also includes two scoreboards, something Leiweke said has never been done. He said everything would be centered around 9,000 seats in the lower bowl. Leiweke added that he promised Seattle rock band Pearl Jam that the arena’s acoustics would be as good as those in Madison Square Garden in New York City and The Forum just outside of Los Angeles.
“For $564 million, you’re essentially building a brand new arena below that roof and you’re going down and you’re creating that atrium and the people moving system in order to get people to and from the parking, the plaza, the rest of Seattle Center and into the bowl,” Leiweke said.
He added: “When you look at the design of this buildings, it’s one of the tightest designs I’ve ever seen. “It’s gonna be a very loud building, it’s gonna be a tough place for other teams to come in here and play because you literally are going down and thus the building goes straight up and the noise stays in.”
Both OVG and AEG reportedly are partnering with groups that have NHL ties. For OVG, it’s Delaware North concessions company, which is run by Jeremy Jacobs, the longest tenured current owner in the NHL. Leiweke said he and Jacobs are longtime friends and had been looking to do business together for more than a year.
Leiweke cautioned against reading too much into the hockey connection, though, saying it’s never smart to get ahead of a league, a commissioner or owners.
“This by no means should people be running around thinking that this assures us of anything,” he said. “It doesn’t and it’s not why we did Delaware North. Do we happen to have a vision for what this building could be that they share? One-hundred percent.
“I think the best message I can send to you guys and the fans today is, just because we’re patient and we’re not gonna step on the toes of the owner and the commissioner doesn’t mean we’re patient. I’m not patient. I’m the least patient person I’ve ever met. I’m driven.”
Other highlights from the conversation:
On securing a team: “We will absolutely guarantee you if there’s a team to be had, we will go out and get it, including we will not only write a check, we will give half of the building and the economics of the building to the owner of that team,” Leiweke said. “As to owners and do we have one, do we don’t have one, that’s getting ahead of the league and we’re not gonna do that. But what I will tell you is we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t believe this was the path that will lead us to at least one, if not two teams. I’m convinced of that.”
The meaning of building to “minimum standards”: Lewieke explained that building to the “minimum standard” for the NBA and NHL does not mean the arena won’t have bells and whistles. It’s actually the opposite. “It actually is going to over-achieve in all aspects. At $564 million, what I will assure you is this is going to be one of the best arenas in music, it’s gonna be one of the best arenas in the NHL or the NBA should either come.”
Giving back to community: Leiweke said OVG has guaranteed an upfront commitment of $20 million to youth initiatives and charities.
If a team becomes available before the arena is ready: “We can always find a Band-Aid if that’s what it’s gonna require. It certainly won’t be the Seattle Center arena because that’ll be gutted and under mass construction, but if that were the opportunity then I think we would find a solution,” Leiweke said. “That said, I don’t see that happening.”
If a team doesn’t come: Leiweke addressed the concerns that Seattle could run into the same situation as Kansas City, which built the Sprint Center in hopes of attracting professional sports teams and is still waiting. Leiweke said the two projects are entirely comparable but stated that the Sprint Center has been “one of the top 10 arenas in the country today,” noting that it’s hosted NCAA Tournament games and saying it’s been “extraordinarily successful” as a concert venue. “It’s completely turned that area of downtown Kansas City around. They paid the bonds off in about a third of the time they thought they were going to have to pay the bonds off. The building is extremely profitable, and if you go back and ask anyone in Kansas City today, they’ll tell you one of the best things that ever happened to Kansas City is the Sprint Center. … Seattle’s a bit of a different animal because it doesn’t have a winter sports franchise. I think it’s destined to have a winter sports franchise but you have to build it with an understanding, we may be Sprint Center. And is that bad?”