Sports fans in Seattle are preparing to board the emotional rollercoaster one more time this week as the city of Seattle embarks on a new process to finalize an arena plans necessary to bring the NBA back to Seattle. At the conclusion of this process we should know whether one of two Seattle Center renovation plans or perhaps Chris Hansen's Sodo proposal will finally lead to the creation a state-of-the-art arena capable of housing new professional sports teams, as well as premium concerts and shows. Looming over it all is a fear that the dreaded “Seattle process” will prevail, stifling momentum in a crowded field and leaving us let down yet again.
The next phase in this process will begin on April 12th, at which time two of the world's most established and successful arena developers, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and Oak View Group (OVG), are expected to respond to the city's Request for Proposal (RFP) for KeyArena renovations.
These proposals will be reviewed Brian Surratt, the director of the city's Office of Economic Development (OED) who will then make a recommendation of further action to city leadership. While Surratt may be relatively unknown to most Sonics fans, he has emerged as a key figure in the team's potential return. Not only tasked with oversight of the KeyArena RFP, he seems willing to assume a leadership role in the city's broader efforts to attract both NBA and NHL franchises.
"Bringing the Sonics back is personally important to me," says Surratt. "Seattle is sitting in great position with multiple interested development options. The city understands that we cannot walk away from this with nothing. While we cannot control whether a franchise becomes available, the mayor and his staff know that in order to be successful we have to finish this process in a timely manner with a deal that opens the door for those leagues to return."
Like other new participants in this process, Surratt has encountered intense skepticism by the fan community. He understands the need to overcome distrust created by more than a decade of letdown, and recognizes the importance of establishing a process that can withstand public scrutiny.
Fans have demonstrated fierce loyalty to Chris Hansen's Sodo project and at times have responded to what they perceive as an "attack" against his efforts with anger and aggression. Many allege that this process is focused on justifying a pre-determined location at KeyArena rather than conducting an impartial evaluation of 3 offers on 2 separate sites. I would remind everyone that Hansen has been unwaveringly consistent, both in public commentary and private discussion, that his ultimate commitment is to bringing the Sonics back. He has stated clearly and definitively that, if another location or ownership group is able to achieve that goal, he will cheer for the return of the team like any other long-suffering fan. His bottom line, like mine, is to restore our beloved NBA franchise and finally close the door on this long and painful saga.
The city of Seattle should be held accountable to that same standard and demand that the city commit to achieving that shared end goal by evaluating the offers fairly and choosing the best option, regardless of location. Everybody involved should understand that, regardless of location, if the Sonics return, regardless of location, it is a victory for the city and it’s residents.
Given the complexity of this situation, Sonics fans are very lucky that Surratt was placed in charge of the whole operation.
While we are not close, I have known Brian for several years. He comes well referred by many mutual friends, and as a former Seahawks employee is a known sports fan. He has demonstrated in both action and words that he understands the value of professional sports in our community and is no stranger to complex and contentious negotiations. After assuming a similar leadership role on the issue of minimum wage increases, Surratt was highly praised for assembling and overseeing a diverse group which ultimately cut a deal that received the begrudging support of stakeholders ranging from socialist councilmember Kshama Sawant to local business leaders both big and small. It can only be viewed as a sign of great success that the final legislation forced significant compromise from all parties but resulted in timely and decisive agreement on a thoughtful plan that everybody could live with.
A similar approach is being taken to resolve the region's arena issue. On February 23rd, the city announced the formation of an Arena Advisory Panel comprised of a 3-person executive review team and a 10-member community advisory panel.
Joining Surratt on the executive review team are Seattle Center Director Robert Nellams and City of Seattle Budget Director Ben Noble. Nellams, also a sports fan, took over management of KeyArena just a few months before the sale of the Sonics in 2006. He has been a longtime participant in regional arena talks, consistently demonstrating integrity and a willingness to engage with me and other sports fans. I especially appreciate that over the course of this debate Robert has been supportive of efforts in Renton, Sodo and other locations without ever putting the interests of Seattle Center above those of the city or region as a whole. I have not worked with Ben Noble directly, but he has been a key city staffer for the Sodo project and has a strong relationship with Hansen's team.
The 10-person advisory panel is made up of industry experts, each of whom is expected to contribute specific areas of expertise to the process. For example, restaurateur Ethan Stowell will provide input regarding food service, kitchen and other related facilities. He has served as the consulting chef for the Mariners at Safeco Field since 2010. Like Surratt and Nellams, Stowell is a known sports fan who has previously supported the Sodo project and often posts to Facebook in support of the Sonics' return.
Stowell's inclusion, along with other long-term supporters such as legendary Sonics player/coach Lenny Wilkens and Tabor 100's Ollie Garrett, indicates to me that this panel is serious about bringing the NBA and NHL to town and that they are unlikely to accept an arena renovation that does not meet that goal. Panel members Deborah Fausto of the Seattle Uptown Alliance and Jill Nischi from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation should ensure that neighborhood and traffic issues are considered as part of any potential plan. In short, I do not believe that this panel is comprised of people who will sacrifice their integrity by approving a lesser deal for KeyArena or ignoring obvious limitations that hurt our chances to acquire a team.
Wilkens agrees. When asked about fan concerns that his panel could be asked to rubber stamp a KeyArena proposal that is less attractive to the NBA than Hansen's Sodo effort, the Hall-of-Famer told SonicsRising, "My priority is bringing the Sonics back. I would not participate in a process that reduced the chances of that happening."
After an honest review of the options with this panel, it will be up to Surratt to provide a recommendation to city leadership. By driving the process forward and holding firm to an established schedule, he has the ability to demonstrate clear and measurable progress to league commissioners which could set the table for discussions about the team's return either at Seattle Center or Sodo, whichever is the best and most viable option.
I feel much more confident in this process because I know Brian Surratt understands that he cannot be successful without putting the city in position to attract both the NBA and NHL. By choosing to open early lines of communication with SonicsRising, Sonicsgate, Bring Back Our Sonics and other fan communities, he has taken the initiative to repeatedly affirm his commitment to the team's return.
Surratt is not the only one to engage in fan outreach during this process. AEG has spent the past several months reaching out to community groups and Seattle leaders. They have connected with fan communities like SonicsRising and Sonicsgate to explain their interest in this opportunity, as well as listen to people’s ideas as they prepare their proposal. Both AEG and OVG have indicated that their public presence is likely to increase substantially after their bids are submitted with each attempting to explain their proposal to build support for their vision. Given this environment I would also expect that the Sodo group will emerge from their relative silence to make a similar arena sales pitch.
With final bids due on Wednesday, I want to urge everybody to give Brian Surratt the benefit of the doubt and support this process, even though previous processes have let us down in the past. Surratt cannot undo prior mistakes but, like the rest of us, he wants the Sonics to come back. We should not undermine those efforts but instead give him the support he needs to make that happen.