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This afternoon SaveOurSonics and traveled to Olympia to attend the Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing on the Sonics new arena proposal. As always it was the conversation in the hallway outside the room that seemed most significant and we were thrilled to have a brief chance to catch up with team ownership as well as political leaders such as Margarita Prentice and Kathy Keolker, Mayor of Renton. Also in attendance were the usual cadre of media and PR representatives whose constant interaction has made the process so interesting.

Today’s announcement of he preferred site selection, located in the city of Renton should be the end of a frustrating period for everyone involved in this process. While it never pays to put forth a sour face in public(unless your name is Chris VanDyke) it has taken effort to stay positive in recent months. While Everybody involved in SOS&S knew that this was going to be a long fight I don’t think we, or anyone else involved fully anticipated how long it would be before that fight actually began. I can say with certainty that everybody involved was frustrated with the process. Clay Bennett wanted to have answers much faster than this, team officials as well as SOS members hoped to have light shed on some of our questions long, long ago, and team representatives were faced with the delicate job of trying to put together a massive project in almost total secrecy. This whole process in turn greatly alienated a media body who was trying to simply do their job by gathering information and I am certain that many SOS&S members have wondered just what the heck we have been doing with our time.

There have been moments when this situation created significant tension and others where the involved parties have simply looked at each other and laughed a bit helplessly. Today I can say that I ran the gambit of emotions, first a bit hurt that the team had not chosen to disclose their site selection to me in advance and then in a moment of real clarity understanding that it simply was not in their best interest to do so. I have made too abundantly clear my position as a member of the Seattle Fan Community. While I am aligned with ownership with a common goal our relationship is simply not structured enough for them to have disclosed that information, especially when I later learned how last minute the decision was made.

I do not think I am alone when I say that a great weight has been lifted by having a site chosen. Suddenly there are new players involved, the Renton government as well as Chamber of Commerce and business leaders. There is new energy behind Margarita Prentice and the other political leaders who now have something vested in making this work. From a fans perspective it looks like we will now have a mission to get involved in. The frustration of waiting for tidbits of information will end, replaced by a common need to rally people to a cause which is significantly more definable than it was one day ago.

Today’s hearing was beautifully orchestrated and in my mind a great example of how a strong political leader can exert influence to make a process go smoothly. Major kudos to Senator Margarita Prentice.

After a quick rundown of the bill a series of supporters was brought out for testimony. King County Executive Ron Simms led off with an emotional speech about the value of athletics in a community. He was followed by Clayton Bennett as well as leaders of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Seattle Arts Foundation, and Seattle Restaurant Association.

One key point emphasized again and again was that this project will provide continued funding for local arts which does not currently exist. In King County almost the entire arts budget funding is scheduled to expire in 2012 and there is no current replacement source for that funding. Under this proposal a 1% tax on hotel rooms, as well as any additional revenue generated from the balance of the tax package would go directly to the arts. As such the Seattle Arts Community seemed supportive in general.

Obviously the highlight of the event was Clayton Bennett, chairman of the Professional Basketball Club, LLC. In his hearing appearance Mr. Bennett referenced the strong public sentiment against prior ownership as well as the backlash that occurred when he, and his Oklahoma City investment group bought the team. He asked to start over by re-introducing himself and describing his interest in owning the team in Seattle.

Mr. Bennett seemed more passionate and easily relatable than in past meetings. He described his ownership group as having interest in the NBA in general and then, as the explored the option of owning the Sonics becoming enamored with the dynamic international economy of the region. He was convincing and significantly more adamant when stating that he never envisioned moving the team and had not considered any options other than success, at one point stating that he simply could not envision that a first tier city in a region this prosperous could not construct a facility capable of hosting the team.

While Bennett was questioned extensively about the teams contribution to the Arena he remained intentionally non-committal. He stated that they anticipated the cost at $500 million and was asking for state funding in the $300 million range. His promise was that between the team and the city they would “bridge the gap” by supplying the $200 million difference. In a later press conference he indicated that the team was anticipating a contribution in the range of $100 million.

Additionally Mr. Bennett advised that he anticipated a building which was utilized 210 nights per year and continued to allude to a potential NHL franchise. While he clearly stated that there was no impending commitment for an NHL team to move to the region the language he used was much stronger than in previous meetings leading a lot of people to believe that a deal with the NHL may be coming together. Obviously this would be a great benefit to the project.

Media members were stunned at how easily Mr. Bennett seemed to get off in his first public appearance before legislature. After answering a single question regarding his desire to field a winning project the committee dismissed him without further questions. Clearly Senator Prentice exerted some powerful influence over her associates who in recent weeks were reportedly very skeptical about this proposal. Based on this meeting it would appear that there is little if any opposition remaining amongst the committee.

The hearing featured only one naysayer, Kitsap County resident Chris VanDyk who at one point was chastised by Prentice to “Keep his conversation on the Bill” and sputtered out an insulting “this Oklahoman” when referring to Clayton Bennett. In all his insults and threats of litigation appeared pretty insignificant in a well scripted event featuring little room for his opposition. Council members appeared bored during his speech and at one point senator Prentice sharply chastised him for beginning a personal tirade against Sonics ownership.

Thank you to members who mounted a solid e-mail campaign today. It seems to have generated hundreds of e-mails and calls to legislature prompting several members to approach us for conversation. Unfortunately the event ran long and we were not given an opportunity to speak but were promised to have one before this process is finished. This is a great example of our ability to influence this thing. While the last 8 months have seemed unproductive we have laid some great groundwork and it is now time to make use of it.

In all today seemed to be an extremely positive day for Sonics fans. There has always been a sense the team has been focused on the political arena rather than entering a battle of public opinion. Today’s event was extremely well orchestrated and credit must be given to the Sonics political allies who set the whole thing up. I left extremely optimistic.