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Wednesday, April 18, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sonics

Owner: Sonics may leave after '08 season

Seattle Times staff reporters

Sonics and Storm owner Clay Bennett said Tuesday the teams may try to leave the state before their KeyArena leases expire in 2010, now that lawmakers have killed the possibility of taxpayer funding for a proposed $500 million Renton arena.

In a conference call with reporters, Bennett said the teams probably will play their 2007-08 seasons in Seattle. But Bennett made no promises, saying he'll "evaluate all of our options," and he suggested the team's lawyers might try to negotiate an early end to the lease.

"I don't think having a franchise that is leaving town is very good for anybody," Bennett said. He said that would be a "disjointed, odd situation" that would make it hard to market Sonics and Storm tickets and advertising.

Seattle city officials have repeatedly said they will enforce the leases, and would demand substantial monetary settlements if the teams leave early. "We have an enforceable lease that is in place until 2010," said Marty McOmber, spokesman for Mayor Greg Nickels.

Bennett said he hasn't completely given up hope on keeping the teams in Washington. He said he'll continue to abide by the agreement he signed last year when he led a group of Oklahoma City businessmen who bought the Sonics and Storm for $350 million. That agreement requires a "good faith" effort until Oct. 31 to land an arena deal here.

But the clock is ticking down.

State lawmakers announced Monday they will not vote on the public-financing plan for the arena.

Bennett said Tuesday Gov. Christine Gregoire told him she will not call a special session of the Legislature to secure a deal. And Bennett refused to extend his Oct. 31 deadline to come back to Olympia next year.

Bennett was in New York Tuesday and said he was discussing other funding options, including possible private investment in an arena. But he gave no details and said he thinks public money is still the key for any plan to pencil out.

NBA Commissioner David Stern, who would have to approve any team move, was not available for comment but issued a statement through a spokesman, saying: "We are looking for a miracle, but it doesn't look good."

In Bennett's hometown, some were already salivating at the prospect of the Sonics heading south. A columnist for The Oklahoman newspaper predicted Sonics owners would "almost certainly" seek to leave Seattle immediately.

Bennett has said he would like to move the teams to Oklahoma City if an arena deal in Washington can't be struck.

But Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said he has received no signal from Bennett that a move is imminent.

"At this point we need to be patient," Cornett said. "No one is pretending to know how that will take place or what the timetable would be."

Some legislative leaders said Bennett's warnings about moving the teams probably wouldn't change many minds in Olympia.

"It hasn't made anybody come to me and say, 'I've reconsidered on this issue,' " said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.

House Finance Committee Chairman Ross Hunter, a critic of the Sonics' proposal, said he hasn't heard any colleagues saying, 'Oh my goodness, I didn't know they'd move.' "

But Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Margarita Prentice, the Sonics' biggest backer in the Legislature, remains optimistic and is quick to point out that Bennett did say he is willing to keep talking.

Prentice said she doesn't think Bennett got a fair shake from the Legislature or the governor.

She figured that, at some point, lawmakers would sit down with Bennett and try to work out a deal. But instead of negotiating with him, Prentice said, Bennett was stonewalled in Olympia.

"He was remarkably easy to work with, but he was never given a break," said Prentice, D-Renton. "He never had anyone to negotiate with."

She has been especially frustrated with House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. For months, Chopp has brushed off questions about the arena proposal, saying that he is focused on other issues.

"He made it clear he was adamantly against it," Prentice said. "We probably could have met every one of his objections, but we never knew what they were."

But Prentice hopes Bennett's statement will encourage more talks by making it clear what's at stake politically — especially for the governor.

"I think she's having to face the reality that the Sonics could disappear on her watch," Prentice said.

Hunter disputed the notion that lawmakers weren't willing to negotiate with the Sonics. He said he asked repeatedly for more information about details of the project — such as firm cost figures and how much the owners would put in.

"Every time I asked for cost information, they kept saying, 'It's too premature, we're not there yet,' " said Hunter, D-Medina. "You can't just ask us for a big check with no details."

Bennett said owners and the city of Renton would fill the gap between the $500 million cost of the arena and the $300 million they were seeking from King County taxes. But he has always refused to put a specific number on the owners' contribution, and said details would have been worked out later in talks with King County.

Holly Armstrong, spokeswoman for Gregoire, said the governor was willing to keep working on the arena but not if it had no chance in the Legislature.

"She can talk until she's blue in this face, but it won't do any good if you don't have the votes," Armstrong said. "You have to know that there's room to move."

Hunter said he figures Bennett is just trying to "create a crisis" in order to gain more leverage in Olympia. Hunter said he'd be surprised if Bennett takes the team and walks away.

"Either he's going to come back and talk to us, or he was never serious," Hunter said.

Could the Sonics and their supporters ever be able to come up with a proposal that satisfies Chopp and other skeptics?

"I don't know," Hunter said.

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

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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