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Commentary: The arena end game should be – MUST be – a Sonics return to Seattle

We now have all the cards on the table: Three legitimate arena proposals. Two locations. And a whole lot of opinions.

Tonight, I’m going to leave the obvious transportation and transit issues in Lower Queen Anne aside. We’ve got 2 ½ months – and more - for everyone to voice their legitimate concerns.

Instead, since Thursday marked the nine-year anniversary of the last Sonics game in Seattle, I’d like to begin the discussion right there:

(Video from Sonics final home game: 4/13/08) “Save our Sonics! Save our Sonics!”

I want everyone to remember that incredible turnout. Remember that passion. Remember the crowds at the Federal Courthouse as Clay Bennett stole our team away. Remember the turnout in Pioneer Square when Chris Hansen first arrived with a vision to bring the Sonics back home.

Without alienating the NHL crowd because I want pro hockey here too, we can’t gloss over what, in a perfect world, SHOULD be the top priority here: Bringing the Sonics back. And bringing them home to stay.

And my first reactions in reading the executive summaries of both the Oak View Group and Seattle Partners renovation proposals for KeyArena were two-fold: Impressed and disappointed.

Impressed at the sheer magnitude of the projects and the financial commitment both are willing to make. And disappointed that the word “Sonics” wasn’t used a single time.

To be fair, “NBA” is used a number of times – and the Sonics are prominently displayed in Seattle Partners arena renderings. So maybe it’s just semantics that neither used the team name. But from Day One, that’s been our goal: Bring ‘Em Back - Bring The Sonics Back. And not seeing those specific words in either summary was a reminder that we have two groups here who are technically outsiders. Businesses who likely prioritize making the balance sheet work before “Bringing The Sonics Back.”

As investors, I don’t fault them one bit. And maybe their plans and partnerships and relationship with the NBA ultimately result in a Sonics return.

But this is a trust issue. We’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes by Howard Schultz and Clay Bennett, and David Stern, and our own city leaders. It’s fair to be skeptical of outside groups coming in with grandiose plans without being completely sure of their true intentions. And one reason fans have been so enamored with Hansen's plan is everything he's done so far - from the launching of SonicsArena.com to his patience with this city - has been a product of his passion toward ONE goal: Bringing the Sonics back.

Now, I’m also a music fan and a fan of the NHL. And it’s really cool that Oak View has secured partnerships with Live Nation and Ticketmaster with the possibility of an extended residency with Pearl Jam. It’s also very promising they have a concessionaire deal with a company owned by Boston Bruins owner, Jeremy Jacobs, who’s on the NHL’s Board of Governors and has a strong influence with the NHL’s Executive Committee.

In fact, I’m pretty sure if Oak View or Seattle Partners wins, KeyArena will be awesome for concerts and probably a new NHL expansion team – but only if they don’t encounter significant delays and red tape that always seem to hamper projects in this city involving public land.

But I’m still worried about the NBA. And I’m worried that, as a first-class concert venue already sacrificing 41 days for pro hockey, if the motivation will be there to sacrifice another 41 for the Sonics. Maybe that’s valid. Maybe it’s not.

Meanwhile, I’m glad Seattle Partners has a backup plan to fully privately fund their project, because it’s a good bet that their “suggestion” of $250 million dollars in public bonding won’t fly. What we learned from Hansen’s first plan, is that the general public doesn’t care whether public bonds will be paid back or “fully guaranteed.” They don’t care about the details. They just see the words “public money,” and immediately say NO WAY.

You then get push-polls sponsored by the Port of Seattle, highlighting problems like homelessness and transportation, and low-income housing, then asking if public funds for an arena should be a priority.

You get groups storming the City Council chambers like we saw when a new police North Precinct was being considered for $160 million dollars. That project, originally set for construction this month, is still being delayed and discussed because of the public outcry. I can imagine the same thing would happen with public bonding money for renovating The Key.

Again, I applaud Oak View Group and Seattle Partners for officially joining the fray. I’m impressed both have found ways they think they can make KeyArena work.

But I question their priorities – is it entertainment-first or sports-first? You can make that call.

I also ask that they truly understand the history of heartbreak we’ve felt for the past decade – and don’t forget it if they win the bid.

Because any project that doesn’t ultimately result in a Sonics return will be considered by many a failure – and you will have once again shattered the fragile hopes of Sonics fans in this city.