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GAME OF ARENAS

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Over the last couple of weeks, Seattle NBA and NHL fans have once again been taken for a roller coaster ride, with a new arena proposal going public in Tukwila and a great deal of speculation occurring about the fate of Chris Hansen and his SoDo arena effort.  This recent surge in arena activity is not a surprise to most people who have been watching this issue closely.  Speculation for some time has been that activity would increase substantially this spring as a result of several factors.

First off, Chris Hansen's FEIS for the SoDo Arena is due to be released on May 7 after months of delays and public silence that has been perceived as inactivity.  Assuming it goes as planned, this final EIS document should silence those critics, including the Mariners and Port of Seattle, who have pronounced the SoDo deal dead.  The FEIS is widely considered the final step necessary before Victor Coleman, the presumed NHL owner, submits a proposal for a hockey-first amendment to the project's existing MOU.

It is also understood that the NHL is strongly considering Seattle as their preferred location for a second expansion destination when they add a team in Las Vegas.  This decision is likely to be made no later than September of this year, creating a window of opportunity for the NHL to make their arrangements between those two events occuring in May and September respectively.

In recent months, it has seemed pretty obvious that the NHL was growing concerned with a perceived lack of political progress in Seattle.  To address these concerns, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman seems to have been active in stoking the fire of alternative ownership groups, ostensibly to apply pressure on the City of Seattle while at the same time advancing an assortment of viable backup plans in case the SoDo Arena plans stumble or an appropriate arrangement for shared use cannot be reached with Chris Hansen.

When Ray Bartoszek and Fred Brown announced their intention to build a privately funded NHL arena in Tukwila, they instantly established themselves as a legitimate competitor to Hansen's group in the public eye.  Other interested parties eyeing alternatives parcels of property in Bellevue and on land owned by David Sabey in Tukwila may now feel increased pressure to come forward over the next few weeks, further confusing the situation as a result of the aggressive pace Bartoszek has set for his project.

Review of the publicly disclosed documents indicate that this project was primarily advanced by Jerry Lee and MulvannyG2, a prominent and well respected architectural firm that worked in partnership with Fred Brown and Bill Russell before the project lead was picked up by Bartoszek in recent months. For now it appears that the project's greatest attribute is a straight line path towards construction expedited by a very supportive city government.  With such a short window of time before the anticipated NHL expansion announcement, this "race to the finish line" approach may be just what is needed to lock down the NHL

It should be noted that the city of Tukwila has been a strong proponent of the NBA's return and regional arena projects for some time.  Economic Development Director Derek Speck was an attendee at just about every ArenaSolution meeting, despite the fact Tukwila was an unlikely destination for the NBA's return.  The municipality strongly supported broader efforts in the belief that professional sports teams benefit the entire region and deserves a lot of credit and respect for carrying the torch this way.  Honestly there is probably no municipality more deserving of landing the arena based on long term political support.

That said, there are questions about the location and project viability.  Many fans and sponsors I talk to openly question whether they would deal with the traffic to get to Tukwila and attend games.  Tukwila lacks the working population available in either Seattle or Bellevue to come to games directly from the office or scheduled afternoon meetings.  Over time, we would ostensibly see an increase the in number of restaurants and destinations necessary for people to drive down early and beat traffic but even at 3 or 4 pm, getting to Tukwila from downtown Seattle or Bellevue can be a challenge.  Residents, like me, who live North of the city are hoping that they will release a more detailed transportation explanation to show how I can take the Sounder train to the proposed arena.

I also wonder whether the site may be an adequate fit for the NHL but not meet the current criteria of the NBA, who generally prefer arenas to be situated in the urban core along the model of LA Live and similar facilities.  To understand better whether this privately financed building will be built to standards that will overcome potential skepticism of the site, I am looking forward to getting a better sense of whether this will be a $350M building or a $500M one and also learn more about the nature of any discussions with the NBA.  At this time, it is my belief that the city of Tukwila has had no direct correspondence with the NBA other than a letter of interest sent in recent months.  It seems on the surface as if they are relying upon Fred Brown to serve as a conduit to the league and basing their actions largely upon his interpretation of the league's position.

These answers and more should come fast and furious as Bartoszek has submitted his SEPA request and appears to be charging forward with preparation for construction.  SonicsRising has reached out to both the City of Tukwila and Bartoszek and is expecting an opportunity to speak with both over the next several days.

Chris Hansen, meanwhile, remains undeterred.  While there is little doubt that confidence in the SoDo Arena project has diminished substantially among both the casual fan and his higher level supporters, Hansen does not seem distracted or deterred by the sudden surge of competition.  Despite hard line opposition from the Seattle Mariners and Port of Seattle, he remains confident that his plan will be finalized and that it offers the most impressive building, soon to be fully entitled on the regions premier site.  Those around him indicate that completion of the EIS will be a critical milestone, renewing his momentum and cementing his control of the situation.  If a competitive building is underway in Tukwila, he may just move forward with an NBA facility regardless, in the belief that major shows and events would prefer his location within the city.

Look for the SoDo project to increase its presence after the release of their EIS and expect some not-so-subtle reminders that while the city of Tukwila has promised to expedite Bartoszek's EIS process, Hansen will have actually completed his.  He has also had 3 years to prepare virtually completed architectural documents for what promises to be a spectacular building.

Prospective NBA investors like Thomas Tull are likely paying close attention to the progress in Seattle and from what I am hearing, it remains the preferred site for most so long as the process does not stumble.  If it moves forward as projected, I believe that any number of prospective team owners may come forward with offers to fill Steve Ballmer's role in the partnership.  If they do so, they should find that Hansen is open to any reasonable arrangement as he maintains that his overriding goal is simply to see the Sonics returned to this marketplace.  If the political process surrounding SoDo falters, then I believe these same prospective investors will consider alternative sites, including Tukwila.

Victor Coleman, Hansen's projected NHL partner, added to the drama last week when he announced that negotiations for SoDo have bogged down and he is considering alternative locations with a new business partner.  Coleman quickly walked back these comments and current reports are that he still hopes to work out a deal with Hansen.  Speculation regarding the reasoning for his comments has varied.  Some believe that it was a clumsily executed effort to negotiate with Hansen and the city, while others believe that Coleman may have panicked a bit when faced with Bartoszek's announcement amid rumors of other prospective NBA owners hovering around the market.  Coleman remains a very highly-regarded businessman and those who know him feel that the sense of conflict between he and Hansen was overstated.  At this time, to the best of my knowledge, the city and Hansen group remain anxious to receive a shared use and MOU revision proposal from Coleman that they can take action on.

Expect a lot of activity in the coming weeks and months as multiple parties scramble to have buildings ready for potential NHL expansion or NBA franchise acquisition.  Each building faces challenges, but it seems pretty apparent that the first person to have an arena ready to go will be in control of the situation.

So who will win this contest?  Hopefully the fans.  We just want a team and support all efforts.

"I think the challenges there are real estate challenges, honestly.  I am not talking about where the location has to be, or anything else...If someone can solve the real estate problem, I am quite sure it would be easy to solve the basketball problem," - Steve Ballmer, 2012