"We're not looking past Dec. 4" is the answer you would most likely to receive if you asked anyone affiliated with OVG's Seattle Center arena project what the future may hold.
I get it.
Nobody wants to jinx an expected outcome. We all remember the surprise votes that occurred in May of 2016 and May of 2013, shattering fan expectations of a Sodo street vacation and Sacramento Kings relocation respectively. NHL fans, along with those of us who have felt that NHL first is the best strategy to pursue the NBA remember the tremendous letdown when an NHL expansion deadline came and went without a bid being submitted. Fans are justifiably wary after having survived an entire decade of worst possible outcomes and disastrous surprises. We all know that "anything can happen" and that "anything" has generally not worked out well for the fans.
That said the clock is counting down and both Seattle City Council and newly sworn in Mayor Jenny Durkan seem to be on a fairly smooth path towards approval of an Oak View MOU on Monday, Dec. 4 just one day after Chris Hansen's MOU expires on Sunday, Dec. 3.
So what comes next? How will the coming months and even years play out for the fans and city?
Politically little is expected to change. Durkan's convincing election victory seems to be a call by voters for stability and moderation, making it unlikely that she would choose to begin her first full week in dealing with ad controversial by rejection of what is expected to be nearly unanimous vote from her city council.
Only 1 seat in that council changed during the election with labor advocate Teresa Mosqueda being elected to the seat previously held by Tim Burgess. The Sodo ownership group effectively stayed out of the election process and Mosqueda is expected to work cooperatively with a council whose decision to cancel a Nov. 26th meeting of the Select Committee on Civic Arenas would seem to indicate their intention to move forward with the MOU vote on December 4.
“I have no idea about that, I’m not here to talk about that. I voted on that 18 months ago, and I voted ‘No’ on that. It’s done. It’s over. I’m looking forward. That’s a failed MOU. That’s the past.” - Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez
Council member Juarez' strong rejection of the Sodo proposal on Nov. 15 may have seemed unnecessarily harsh and unkind to the projects supporters but was in some ways refreshingly candid and frank. It essentially echoes what people inside city hall have been saying privately about the project since the failed street vacation vote and makes public the obstacles Chris Hansen needed to overcome if he wanted to regain any hope of moving forward.
Despite this harsh commentary and lack of a viable path to success the Sodo group remains unwilling to stand aside or back down. Investor Wally Walker was recently interviewed by Prof. Jeff Shulman on the Seattle Growth Podcast and had this to say about his group's MOU expiration:
"It means nothing." Walker replied, "It's an artificial deadline. Our MOU expires, it's five years old, but what we've proposed since that MOU was negotiated is completely different. Our deal's now totally privately financed. We've added now at least an option for something else at KeyArena, things we can all do on our MOU, we're just improving it for the city and it's taxpayers and for the sports fans. We're not changing or pulling our proposal off the table on December 4th."
As someone who worked hard on that MOU I find those comments exceptionally frustrating. How can the MOU not matter? What possible path forward could they have given the ineffectiveness of current strategies and apparent unwillingness to change course? At this point the Sodo team's insistence on remaining in the conversation seems to be divisive and disheartening without offering any path forward.
The chances of this group remaining relevant after an Oak View Group MOU is signed seem slim. Even Walker seems to acknowledge that some substantive change will be necessary to get his team back in the game but offered little to indicate
"I'd like a surprise announcement." Walker told Shulman, "I don't know what the surprise is right now. I guess it would be the right owner."
OVG on the other hand appears set to enter this new phase with substantial momentum on the heels of a commanding political victory. Their work will not end on Dec. 4 but it will certainly transition to a new phase. Lawyers, land use specialists and architects will engage with the Seattle City Attorney's office to create a binding contract based on terms agreed upon in the MOU as well as construction permit documents sufficient to begin construction in October of 2018. This complex legal maneuvering will in many ways be even more complex than current efforts but will be much more procedural in nature, involving a whole cadre of retained professionals and take place largely outside the public eye.
In normal circumstances I would probably expect OVG to go pretty dark during this period, taking a deep breath to regroup and focusing their attention on the lawyers for a few months. However, given OVG's intention to break ground in October and be ready to host an NHL expansion team in 2020 normal circumstances may not apply.
To meet this demanding schedule all parties are counting on excitement and the pressure of an NHL expansion franchise in 2020 to add urgency to the situation, keeping focus on the permitting and contract situations to avoid the procedural slowdowns that ultimately killed Sodo's chances. As such there is substantial speculation that dialogue and potential league action could come sooner rather than later, generating enthusiasm for the project within fan communities and city hall.
Both the schedule and intensity of any NHL dialogue remain a mystery. We do not know whether discussions about potential NHL expansion will begin immediately upon the MOU's signing or take 3-6 months to materialize. We also do not know whether news regarding the NHL will be accompanied by an active campaign to build interest and prepare for franchise launch or how will that potential campaign may be managed.
The success or failure of any franchise launch and the project as a whole will probably depend on OVG’s ability to address their current enthusiasm gap and generate excitement among the broader community of sports fans. This has led project supporters to join with critics in asking OVG to make this process "fun again". There are hopes that they will take substantive actions to engage with the community and generate excitement around their new building and potential team.
Lastly there is uncertainty about whether or not Sonics fans and proponents of the NBA will be included in any type of effort to build enthusiasm. There is little doubt that hockey deserves its moment and perhaps NBA endeavors are better off being set aside and dealt with later, when the emotions surround Sodo are a little less raw and after Tim Leiweke has proven himself by promptly delivering the first of 2 expected franchises.
It could also be argued constant questions and criticism by fans of the NBA has the potential to be an anchor for the project, diminishing enthusiasm in both the NHL's arrival and the building as a whole. Given the $1.2 billion investment OVG and its investors plan to make in a building and franchise it seems logical that some action could be taken to bring Sonics fans into the fold, reassure them of Leiweke's commitment to the NBA and earn the support of a still skeptical fan base.
What do fans expect to happen after December 4?
What can OVG do to build enthusiasm for their project?
Does Sodo have a game changing surprise ahead?
Stay tuned. I expect things to be busy.