NBA legend Russell lobbies lawmakers to support Sonics arena

NBA legend Russell lobbies lawmakers to support Sonics arena
This computer drawing shows how a proposed new arena may look if it is constructed as planned on a site currently owned by the Boeing in Renton.
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - NBA legend and former Seattle SuperSonics coach Bill Russell went before skeptical lawmakers to urge them to support a plan to build a new $500 million multipurpose arena in the Seattle suburbs - with the help of $300 million in taxpayer money.

Russell appeared Monday with Clay Bennett, who leads the team's new Oklahoma-based ownership, which is seeking to leave KeyArena in Seattle and build a new facility in Renton, just southeast of Seattle. Russell said he had talked to NBA Commissioner David Stern about the Sonics having financial difficulties.

"The purpose of this is to have a facility to bring people in all year round," said Russell, who has lived on Mercer Island near Seattle for 34 years. "It's the only way it's going to be economically viable."

Bennett has said the team needs at least $300 million in public money for the project.

If Bennett doesn't get an agreement for a new arena in the Seattle area by Oct. 31, his $350 million purchase agreement allows him to move the team - most likely to Oklahoma City.

"When they sold the SuperSonics to Clay, I said, 'That's the end of that,"' Russell told the House Finance Committee hearing. "I assumed they were headed to Oklahoma."

But when he discovered Bennett wanted to keep the Sonics and the WNBA Storm in Seattle, Russell said, he told Stern and Bennett he'd do everything he could to help.

"I would feel a vacuum in my existence if we started to lose teams," Russell said. "I'm just another citizen that would like to see something like this be part of our community."

Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, asked Bennett what he thought about a public vote on the arena.

Polls have indicated many residents do not support public financing of sports arenas, and the proposal has received a very chilly reception from lawmakers in Olympia. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, pronounced the plan dead on arrival in the House, despite support in the Senate from powerful Renton Democrat Margarita Prentice, chair of Senate Ways and Means.

Bennett, who had said before he was against the idea of a public vote, said Monday that he had changed his mind.

"The risk of not being successful with a public vote has consequences," he said. "If we can't get the building done, the teams can't stay. That's not meant to be any sort of a threat, because we're absolutely committed to keeping the teams here, but we must have a new building."

Bennett said his group has commissioned a study of how bringing hockey into the proposed building would work. He said the owners plan to have the facility used at least 240 days a year.

The tax authority the Sonics want from the Legislature is currently paying for new Seattle stadiums for baseball's Mariners and the NFL Seahawks, as well as for remaining debt on the now-demolished Kingdome.

The taxes, to be applied after they expire for the Seattle stadiums, would include a one-half of 1 percent sales tax on restaurant tabs and rental cars, and a hotel-motel tax, all in King County.

Rep. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, asked Bennett what the arena would mean for traffic in the area, calling it "another new pressure on a very difficult area."

Bennett said it's possible the highway near the proposed site would be widened, but that when looking at all potential sites, the team "never found a site that had a good transportation answer."

Committee chairman Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, had said previously that he was skeptical of spending public money on stadiums and said Monday that he still was.

"I'm responsible for wielding a sharp pencil and making sure these deals really pencil out for the taxpayers in Washington. And, I'm going to do that," he said.

The hearing came the same day reporters noted that two members of the Oklahoma ownership team were top donors to Americans United to Preserve Marriage, a group led by conservative Christian activist and former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer.

Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward donated several thousands of dollars to the group in 2004, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

When asked after the hearing about the reports, Hunter said, "This is a policy issue, but I would expect that would have an impact on some members," especially those from liberal Seattle.

Bennett brushed off the connection Monday night and said after the hearing that the reports were "unrelated to our process."

The committee took no action Monday, and Hunter said he didn't know when the bill would be considered next.

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The measure is House Bill 2264.