Keep Sonics in region, add NHL to the lineup

It’s hard to see, we admit, any real chance that the Sonics and Storm won’t leave.

Seattle’s NBA and WNBA teams are being sold to a group of Oklahoma City’s business elite, headed by Clayton Bennett, the man who coaxed the hurricane-displaced New Orleans Hornets to town. Bennett has made no secret of his desire to run an NBA franchise in Oklahoma City. That opportunity could come as soon as the 2007-08 season, when, league Commissioner David Stern insists, the Hornets will be back home in New Orleans and Oklahoma City’s 4-year-old arena will be available.

Yet Bennett insists he’s willing to keep the teams here. Like the old, local owners, though, he says they can’t make it without a new, more profitable arena. If a deal for one isn’t cut within a year, he says, his group will consider its options.

Goodbye, Seattle Sonics. Hello, Oklahoma City Tornadoes.

Yet behind that gloomy picture may lie an opportunity.

Let’s say that Gov. Chris Gregoire assumed the lead in finding a solution. Her aim: to see an entirely new arena built somewhere in King County, one that could be home for decades not only to the Sonics and Storm, but a National Hockey League team. Focusing on a new building rather than a second remodel of KeyArena removes the debate from the city of Seattle, where elected officials are deeply divided and an anti-arena initiative will probably be on the November ballot.

The governor could use Safeco Field and Quest Field, the homes of the Mariners and Seahawks, as strategic blueprints: find funding sources in King County that fall most heavily on those who use the facility and those who profit from it, and have it run by an independent public facilities district.

Part of the formula could also be a state sales-tax rebate equal to the amount the state would lose if the teams left. What should not be considered is a simple extension of taxes imposed to build Safeco Field, which lawmakers pledged to remove when the stadium bonds were paid off. A new arena will require an entirely new funding package, which, like Safeco and Quest fields, must include a substantial investment by the major tenant.

The region appears ready to support big-league hockey, and losing the Sonics and Storm would be shame. Their presence kindles economic activity and sparks regional pride. If they leave, the region would no doubt seek a replacement, and we’d be talking about building a new arena anyway.

Better to make our best effort now.

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