Coliseum Renovations Win OK -- City Council Votes 7-2 On Deal With Sonics

Major renovation and expansion of the Seattle Center Coliseum will begin a year from now, under terms of a new agreement between the city and the Seattle SuperSonics.

The City Council yesterday gave the go-ahead to the $73.4 million project. By a 7-2 vote, the council approved a contract with the Sonics - a contract identical to one a council committee turned down last Thursday.

"I'm very pleased with the outcome," said Mayor Norm Rice. "I think we negotiated a pretty good deal and we achieved our goal for the city to have a . . . new arena without any new taxes. And it guarantees that the Sonics will be here until well into the next century."

Rice said he was even pleased with some little things in the agreement. The new arena will be smoke-free and tobacco advertising is prohibited.

"We're very excited and very happy about it," said Bill Ackerley, chief operations officer of Ackerley Communications, owner of the Sonics.

The state-of-the-art building will provide Seattle sports and concert fans with comforts similar to those in new arenas in Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Milwaukee and Detroit, he said.

By contrast, the present Coliseum, built 31 years ago for the World's Fair, has a shabby feel and its leaky roof has become a local joke.

If all goes well, the Sonics will play elsewhere - the Kingdome and the Tacoma Dome are likely locations - only for the 1994-1995 season. The team will return to an arena with 17,700 seats, about 3,500 more than now, in the fall of 1995.

To increase the building's seating capacity, the playing floor will be lowered 35 feet. Although a new rigid roof will be built, there will be no change in the building's appearance from outside.

Yesterday's agreement, which signs up the Sonics as major tenants in the renovated Coliseum for 15 years, enables the city to finance the reconstruction project entirely with income generated by the building.

Still, several council members expressed concern about the city taking the risk of raising the capital and the Sonics taking the profits. On that basis, council members Jane Noland and Jim Street voted against the plan.

Last Thursday, the council asked Seattle Center Director Virginia Anderson to go back to Ackerley and get an extension of the Sonics' lease to 20 years and a guarantee of the income the city needs from the building, presently estimated at $7 million the first year, rising to $9 million in the 15th year of operation.

However, the Sonics would agree to no changes in the proposal, said Councilwoman Cheryl Chow, whose Parks Committee oversees Seattle Center.

In bringing the issue to a final vote yesterday, Chow, calling it "the best option in front of us," reminded the council that Anderson had done what they'd asked when she initially negotiated the contract with the Sonics: a deal that ensures renovations would be paid for entirely by revenues from the redone Coliseum.

Explaining his vote yesterday, Street criticized the agreement for leaving the city "even with where we are today," earning about $1 million per year from the Coliseum "while permitting the Sonics in the first year to generate about $5 million more than they do today."

He said he backed extending the Sonics' lease from 15 to 20 years, the length of time the city will need to pay off its construction bonds.

"What is at issue is what is reasonable," Street said. He said it would be reasonable for the team to provide greater certainty that the city will earn enough money to pay off the bonds.

"The deal with Ackerley, I feel, is lopsided," said Noland, who questioned the outcome if Ackerley can't sell enough of the 58 corporate suites planned for the renovation. Ackerley is in charge of promoting them. The suites will lease for between $70,000 and $135,000, according to Anderson.

Noland also asked what would happen if predictions are wrong about the increase in concerts and other events at the renovated arena.

"The public pays for all these mistakes," she said. "I think this is a bad deal for the public. The public is at too much risk, so I can't support it."

Though voting for the proposal, Councilwoman Martha Choe agreed with Noland that Ackerley might not be able to sell enough of the 58 luxury suites to get the project off the ground. If that happened, and renovation was canceled, the city would be stuck with a $3 million bill for the redesign.

Borrowing some of Noland's rhetoric to argue the other side, Councilwoman Margaret Pageler reminded the other council members that if the Coliseum is not renovated, it still needs repairs.

"And who pays? The taxpayers," she said.