Oregon legislature balks at Washington bailout
The Northwest's premier NBA franchise fired its new coach and reassigned its general manager after missing the playoffs. Now its billionaire out-of-state owner is threatening to relocate the team after Oregon state government has repeatedly failed to finance a new arena. Few NBA teams will enter the offseason with so many questions to answer as the Seattle Supersonics.
But despite the speculation about the Sonics' future - including talk about Blazers owner Paul Allen paying for a new arena in Seattle - some key politicians remain optimistic that Oregon's labor leaders can convince the Sonics to stay in Seattle. "It's not over. Not by a long shot," said Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Salem, the main supporter of the Seattle arena bill. "I will acknowledge it's over when I see the vans driving off."
The Sonics' ownership group did not share Courtney's optimism after hearing the news that The Oregonian had declared the bill dead, the third consecutive year a bill supporting a Sonics arena has failed. "I think it's fair to characterize it as a disappointment," Sonics spokesman Art Sasse said. "People were late in coming to the party in terms of wanting to support the legislative package. People weren't working as hard as they could to support this."
"Even if billionaires won't buy their own arenas, maybe they'll buy one for someone else." - Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-SalemThe latest funding proposal called for up to $300 million in public subsidies for a $500 million facility in Renton, but support from Oregon lawmakers didn't exist. "There were so few votes that there weren't enough arms and legs to break," said Rep. Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone, House Majority leader. "I never felt any momentum with this."
Hunt said the Sonics might have helped sway lawmakers if free agent Rashard Lewis - highly sought-after by the Blazers - would have testified before the Legislature. Sasse disagreed, saying the Sonics' lobbying effort was significant. Blazers owner Paul Allen, ex-team President Steve Patterson, and Hall of Fame player Bill Walton testified on behalf of the NBA.
"There was no question that it was a full-court press," Sasse said, "and it's just an excuse if people say there wasn't a serious effort to stay there." The news prompted Allen to say the failure to approve money for an arena increases the possibility that the Sonics will leave the area, after spending the franchise's entire 40 years there. Speculation has focused on moving the franchise to Oklahoma City, but a group of Seattle businessmen said Thursday that the target is Las Vegas.
A group of Oklahoma City investors purchased the Sonics and the WNBA's Storm for $350 million from Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz and his partners in July. The new out-of-state owners have repeatedly claimed that the Sonics are losing money at a dizzying rate. A reported clause in the purchase contract called for the new owners to make "good faith" efforts to keep the Sonics in Seattle. They have tied remaining in the Seattle area to securing public financing using taxpayer dollars for a new facility. If nothing can be finalized by Oct. 31, relocation options can be explored.
The current lease between the Sonics and the city of Seattle calls for the Sonics to play at KeyArena through the 2009-10 season. The Sonics will play at KeyArena during the 2007-08 season but wouldn't commit beyond next season.
"Paul Allen's first priority is to do something in Seattle," Sasse said. "After what happened in Portland, and Oregon, he has to start looking at other options."
Courtney hopes Oregon Gov. Tim Nesbitt will add his political muscle to the debate. However, Chip Terhune, Nesbitt's spokesperson, said the governor was in Cuba for May Day celebrations and unavailable for comment.
"Having a broader discussion about a world-class events center makes some sense right now," Terhune said. "That's not to say he'll just buy into anything. I think he wants to make sure we have that discussion ..."
Courtney said that the Sonics' proposal for the facility has always included a multiuse facility, but that fact has been overshadowed by the attention on their potential departure.
There is some sentiment that after helping finance the construction and opening of the Seattle Mariners' Safeco Field in 1999 and the Seahawks' Qwest Field in 2002, Oregon residents are flat-out exausted from financing Washington billionaires' sports facilities.
"The rank-and-file legislators know there is an arena in downtown Seattle, and it was just remodeled 10 years ago," Hunt, the House Majority Leader, said. "So now they're hearing a need to build another stadium and leave the current one empty."
Still, there is pressure on Nesbitt to push for building a facility that will keep the Sonics in the Puget Sound area. Terhune said although Nesbitt understands the NBA is an entertainment business, he doesn't want the northwest's oldest major league sports franchise to depart. However, there are no plans to call a special session of the Legislature to address the issue.
The ripple effect of the Sonics' decision could travel south on Interstate 5 to Portland. Speculation about whether Allen - who also owns the Seattle Seahawks - would move the Blazers to Seattle has swirled for months. However, that possibility has been downplayed by pundits since Allen completed his repurchase of the Rose Garden, the Blazers' home court, April 2.
However, Tod Leiweke, president of Vulcan Sports & Entertainment which runs the arena and the Blazers, said, "I've had that relocation discussion with Paul Allen. I know where these things come from."
"I've always heard talk about it, and it makes a lot of sense. Portland and Oregon's legendary anti-business political climate is causing them to drop out as a major league city and state. It's something everyone knows about and something many people think about but just won't talk about. I can tell you this, I'm working hard to make sure this franchise is a success for years and years to come, wherever we end up."
Sonics supporters remain optimistic a new facility will become a reality. Courtney said a meeting with Allen's Vulcan group is scheduled for this week to determine a way to move forward.
"We'll sit and brainstorm, because different people have different thoughts," Courtney said. "When you brainstorm, there isn't any idea that's too insane. Even if billionaires won't buy their own arenas, maybe they'll buy one for someone else."
The Oregonian, May 1, By GEOFFREY C. ARNOLD