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Tuesday, February 27, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sonics owner unveils model for proposed Renton venue

Seattle Times staff reporter

OLYMPIA -- Sonics owner Clay Bennett on Monday unveiled early sketches of a proposed $500 million Renton arena and softened his stance on whether it should go to a public vote.

But Bennett said team owners won't pay for any cost overruns. And with a Legislature skeptical over the $300 million-plus bill to taxpayers already sought, it's not clear whether the building will ever become more than ink on paper.

At a hearing before the House Finance Committee, Bennett offered few new details about the proposed arena beyond the sketches. He did not say how much owners would contribute and said many details would have to be worked out in a lease with King County.

Bennett said he still views a public vote as "problematic" but said he was open to "whatever leadership recommends and whatever is right for this region and however that decision needs to be made."

Supporters of the plan vastly outnumbered opponents at the hearing. A few dozen Sonics and Storm fans were on hand to cheer the proposal, urging lawmakers to do whatever it takes to keep the teams in the region.

Bennett has said he would move the basketball teams unless a new arena deal is reached. The teams say they can't make money at KeyArena, the smallest venue in the NBA.

NBA legend Bill Russell, a longtime Mercer Island resident, said he'd feel a "vacuum in my existence" if Seattle lost the teams.

"World-class regions bring in these kind of assets, they don't lose them," said Steven Pyeatt, co-founder of Save our Sonics and Storm.

But Finance Committee Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said many lawmakers remain skeptical about propping up professional sports and of Bennett's plans to try to attract a National Hockey League team.

"This market is having a little trouble supporting a basketball team, a football team and a baseball team," Hunter told Bennett, noting that competition from Qwest Field and Safeco Field had hurt the luxury-suite sales at the Sonics' existing home, KeyArena.

Bennett argued the project would pay for itself over time with increased tax collections and said the region needs a large multipurpose arena, even without the Sonics and Storm, to attract large conventions and other events that currently go elsewhere.

But in an interview after Monday night's hearing, Hunter said he doubts such claims and pointed to academic research showing no large economic-development benefit from publicly funded arena projects.

"There is no economic justification for this at the state level," Hunter said. "The decision is, do people want to have professional basketball in the Seattle area and are they willing to pay taxes for it? I personally am pretty skeptical about it."

The Sonics proposal, contained in Senate Bill 5986 and House Bill 2264, would allow King County to pay for the arena with several taxes currently dedicated to paying off Safeco Field, Qwest Field and the Kingdome.

The taxes include a portion of the retail sales tax as well as taxes on restaurant meals, car rentals and hotels in King County.

Those taxes would raise an estimated $1.1 billion between 2012 and 2032, according to estimates by legislative staff. Most of that money would be used to pay off the arena construction bonds and interest, but millions of dollars also would be available for arts groups and possible future maintenance on Safeco Field.

Although the arena would be publicly owned, the Sonics and Storm would be the principal tenants and would keep virtually all of the money from arena events -- an arrangement similar to the one enjoyed by the Mariners and Seahawks at their stadiums.

The plan has drawn fire from key legislators, including House Speaker Frank Chopp. State Treasurer Mike Murphy also has lumped the Sonics' plan together with a proposed new NASCAR track, calling both bad deals for taxpayers.

But the Sonics have powerful supporters, too. Gov. Christine Gregoire has touted the arena's possible benefits, and Sen. Margarita Prentice, chairwoman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, has been a vocal supporter.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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