Sonics' owner pushes new arena talks; any move would be to OKL

SEATTLE, Washington (AP)7-07

On the day Clay Bennett called for a resumption of talks regarding a new arena in the Seattle area, the SuperSonics owner finally declared where he'll move the franchise if a deal can't be reached.

To no one's surprise, it'll be Bennett's hometown of Oklahoma City.

Bennett spokesman Dan Mahoney confirmed Thursday that if Bennett files relocation papers with the NBA, Oklahoma City will be the destination. It's the first time Bennett has made a solid declaration about the Sonics' future location if a new arena deal doesn't develop in Seattle.

“Kansas City was being looked at, but the preference is that if relocation is attempted, Oklahoma City would be the market,” Mahoney said.

Previously, Bennett visited Kansas City to speak with officials there about their new arena that is without an anchor tenant. Oklahoma City just finished a successful two-year run hosting the New Orleans Hornets, who are returning to Louisiana for the 2007-08 season.

Bennett has set an Oct. 31 deadline - one year from the date his purchase of the franchise closed - for finding an arena solution. If no progress is made, Bennett has promised to begin relocating the team.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett stressed that Oklahoma City is “not proactively seeking any franchise” and is aware that NBA teams have leases with their current cities that they are expected to honor. But Cornett said at some point an NBA team will announce that it is actively looking to relocate, and he will pursue that team.

Bennett, who owns the Sonics and WNBA Storm, maintains his optimal situation is in Seattle. His pronouncement on where the team might move came as he re-emerged to push the arena issue - one-year after his purchase of the franchise.

Bennett has been mostly silent on the issue since the Washington Legislature adjourned in April without taking action on a proposal that would have contributed about $300 million in public money for a new arena in the Seattle suburbs.

“The clock is ticking and we wanted to again bring a call to action and raise the issue and bring people to the table and get serious about what needs to get done,” said Bennett, who was in Seattle on Thursday morning before he flew back to Oklahoma City in the afternoon.

Bennett spoke with Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels before he left, to arrange an in-person meeting. In a statement released earlier in the day, Bennett said Nickels is “the appropriate person to provide leadership and guidance on this issue.”

Getting a new arena in Seattle will be difficult after voters passed an initiative last fall requiring that teams pay “fair-market value” for new facilities in the city - instead of leaving the overwhelming majority of the costs for taxpayers. Bennett is hoping Nickels can bring together other civic and private leaders.

“(He) was extremely receptive and considerate in the phone conversation,” Bennett said. “It's not so much to provide public money, but he is someone who can provide leadership and bring people to the table in his capacity as mayor ... and help address the issue.”

The city wants to hear what Bennett has to say in person.

“We'll take the discussion from that point and see where the initial meeting goes,” said Nickels' spokesman Marty McOmber.

The Legislature took no action on a proposal to use King County tax revenues to cover $278 million of a proposed $500 million arena in the suburb of Renton. The Sonics have a lease with the city of Seattle to play at KeyArena - the smallest venue in the NBA - through the 2010 season. Last year, NBA commissioner David Stern called that lease the league's worst.

Three months ago, Bennett appeared ready to write the city a check to break the lease after next season, saying the Sonics would likely honor the agreement only through “a legal exercise.”

McOmber said the city's stance has not changed.

“The lease is thru 2010 and we expect them to honor that lease. And that's where it remains,” he said, adding all previous proposals for renovations to KeyArena are still on the table.

With a public partnership appearing less likely, Bennett appears to be leaning toward the private sector if a deal is to get done in Seattle.

One option could be the Muckleshoot Indian tribe, which owns land near Emerald Downs race track in Auburn, 24 miles south of downtown Seattle. The tribe has examined possibilities for the land and a consultant's report is due back soon, spokesman Rollin Fatland said Thursday.

Bennett also had an introductory meeting with David Sabey, a Seattle-area real estate developer, to discuss land Sabey bought a few months ago in Tukwila, south of Seattle.

There have been no subsequent discussions with either the tribe or Sabey's group.

“We're open to any idea that helps us get into a new building,” Bennett said.