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In Seattle, arena debate rests on teams and timing

Kirby Lee / USA TODAY Sports

SEATTLE - For more than half this decade, the debate around building a new arena in Seattle has gone nowhere. The talk of a new home that could someday house the NBA and NHL has been filled with roadblocks, detractors, rising hopes and emotional outbursts from fans. Still, there has been no answer.

Could there finally be an end to the lingering question of if and when Seattle may get another professional team?

Seattle is in the midst of an arena showdown involving three groups and two sites. It's an intricate dance weaving interests of private investment, public facilities, political pressures and passionate fans. A decision expected by the end of June will shape how Seattle moves forward.

''This is a once in a generational opportunity, and we have three, potentially three, investor groups willing to invest upward to half a billion dollars each,'' said Brian Surratt, the director of the Office of Economic Development for the city of Seattle. ''So let's understand all of our options.''

From afar it may sound like more noise about an arena emanating from the upper left-hand corner of the country. More talk of whether the NHL will expand and if the SuperSonics will ever return.

Dig deeper and there is real substance and real risk. Three groups all talking of privately financed arenas that ask for no public investment, but none with the upfront promise of an NBA or NHL franchise as an anchor tenant to call that building home.

''We build an arena that can accommodate NHL and NBA, investors will be here,'' Surratt said. ''Teams will want to be in this market, and what's been clear to me this entire process is we need to solve the arena equation and the investments will come, because right now we don't have a plan.''

Nearly six years after he started, investor Chris Hansen is still trying to get an arena constructed on land he owns near Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field, the two current pro sports stadiums in town. He has become the choice of fans who are tired of delays stalling the process as Hansen has faced opposition from some city officials and maritime interests.

New to the conversation in the past six months is talk of revitalizing KeyArena, the former home of the SuperSonics that was deemed outdated and a catalyst for the team bolting to Oklahoma City in 2008. Arena giant AEG is one of those expected to submit a plan for renovating KeyArena. The other is the Oak View Group, headed by industry leader Tim Leiweke. The proposals for KeyArena are expected to be released on April 12.

''The industry is changed and the modern buildings of today aren't like the buildings that were built 10 years ago or 15 years ago or 20 years ago,'' said AEG President Bob Newman said. ''The requirements of teams, the requirements of artists and performers, and the requirements of fans and guests have all changed.''

The city acknowledges some kind of investment must be made in KeyArena to keep the city-owned facility updated. Both AEG and Oak View may come back with plans saying the cost is too high or the engineering is too difficult to make KeyArena viable for the NBA and NHL and turning the building into an entertainment venue is best. That's what Hansen is hoping.

But if either group says KeyArena can again be a pro sports facility - even with a litany of issues from a historic roofline to nightmare traffic - the next few months will turn into a politicized campaign around the two sites until a recommendation is made to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who ultimately has the final call.

''What we see is what others see. This is the largest, single metropolitan area in all of North America that today does not have a winter sports team and does not have a world-class arena,'' Leiweke said.

So why is Seattle suddenly this hotbed of arena talk, years after the NBA said so long to the city after 41 years?

Few markets in the country can match Seattle's recent growth. Whatever the indicator - jobs, housing - Seattle has been on an upward tick that would make investors jump at the opportunity to enter the market.

Seattle - the No. 14 media market in the country - also is the only market in the Top 25 nationally that does not have an NBA or NHL team. It's the outlier in the winter sports marketplace.

''The growth of the city, downtown, is almost second to none. ... You have a corner on the crane market worldwide,'' Newman said.

But the debate still hinges on whether to create an arena first, or lure a team first and let the arena follow.

Since he first started down this road, Hansen has said he will not begin construction until a team is acquired. That was his position when there was public investment involved. That remains his stance now that he is privately financing his project.

Newman and Lewieke both believe the arena must come first and neither league will entertain putting a franchise in a market until the arena is at or near completion. Newman pointed to his company's latest venue - the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas - as a perfect example. The arena was built; a prospective owner stepped up; a franchise was awarded.

But they both cautioned the financial model for constructing the arena has to work without a team guaranteed. That's another major risk for a city-owned facility.

''I do not believe they're coming here until you figure out a way to get an arena built, and you better be prepared to make that arena work without the two because you're not going to have that guarantee in your back pocket,'' Leiweke said.

Hansen spearheaded this entire arena debate starting in 2011 and stayed with the process through numerous setbacks from his failed attempt to buy the Sacramento Kings to last year's surprising Seattle City Council vote that blocked a needed street closure for his arena plan.

Hansen said he understands why the city looking at its options for KeyArena being it's a city-owned asset, but hoped those involve understand the limitations of a remodeled building. The timeline for eventually landing an NBA or NHL team would be significantly lengthened.

''My opinion, we've had a lot of false starts here and the leagues are likely to look at the long-term track record of Seattle political process with some inherent skepticism, both our project and to KeyArena,'' Hansen said.

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