Plan would nearly double size of KeyArena

A proposed $180 million expansion would nearly double the size of KeyArena to make way for new concession stands and restaurants, plus new offices, parking and a practice court for the Seattle SuperSonics.

Under early plans sketched by consultants, the arena's footprint would grow from the current 386,000 square feet to 730,000 square feet, according to documents released in response to a public-disclosure request by The Seattle Times.

The Sonics and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels plan to ask state lawmakers for more than $200 million in hotel- and sales-tax money to pay for the expansion plus pay off the debt remaining from the building's 1995 remodeling.

The expansion would add only about 500 seats but would vastly increase the size of the perimeter of the building so the concourse would be wider and accommodate new concession stands, bars and restaurants. KeyArena now seats about 17,000 for Sonics games.

The building's south end would be expanded for new team offices, a 390-stall parking garage, a new practice court, weight room and larger Sonics team store.

Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said the Mayor's Office plans to work with the Sonics to get the financing plan through the Legislature. He said any package would have to ensure Seattle taxpayers are protected by paying off the $58 million in debt remaining from the last remodeling.

"We don't want to be left holding the bag," Ceis said.

The money would not come from any new taxes. The proposal, while not completed, would ask legislators to redirect King County hotel- and sales-tax revenue that helped finance the construction of Qwest Field and Safeco Field.

Some of the tax money is dedicated to paying off the baseball and football stadiums for more than a decade. The Sonics and Nickels want the Legislature to shift the revenue to KeyArena once the other sports facilities are paid off. If that wins approval, Seattle would sell tax-anticipation bonds to provide upfront cash for construction.

Consultants estimated a completely new arena, modeled after San Antonio's SBC Center, which opened in 2002, would cost as much as $428 million if built in Seattle or the Eastside, according to the documents released by the city.

The expanded KeyArena would bring the Sonics up to the National Basketball Association's average size for basketball arenas and would allow the team more opportunities to make money from luxury seating and other amenities, said Terry McLaughlin, the team's executive vice president.

The plan would eliminate 26 of the current 54 suites, converting them to additional "club" seats and other premium seats that could be sold as a package or individually. A new "courtside club" would be available only to courtside ticket-holders. Access to the club, plus parking spots in the new garage, would give the Sonics a new marketing tool, McLaughlin said.

That would provide more revenue to a team that says it has lost $50 million over the past five years. McLaughlin said the team did not have the exact details of how much new revenue it would gain from the proposed expansion. But the expansion would be geared toward returning the team to profitability.

Team owners say they've found it difficult to make money under the current contract with the city, which is structured so that the city gets a hefty cut of revenue from the luxury suites, concessions and arena-naming rights.

KeyArena's poor financial performance has also been blamed for dragging down the overall Seattle Center budget. The Center has run up a $9.4 million budget deficit.

The new proposal would be a better deal for both the team and the city, McLaughlin said.

"The city gets a team that is financially healthy in a building that is financially healthy and new for generations to come," he said.

The Sonics would also gain the convenience of having the team practice court and management offices connected to the arena.

The team's practice facility is now on the east side of Seattle Center, on a lot the city is contemplating selling to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The team offices are several blocks away, on Elliott Avenue.

In recent weeks, team CEO Wally Walker has been making the rounds at City Hall, briefing City Council members on the expansion proposal. The team also has hired lobbyists to push for the financing in Olympia.

The Sonics lease at KeyArena expires in 2010. Team representatives have said the Sonics want to stay there but have hinted they would consider a move if the facility can't be upgraded to become profitable.

The proposal outlined in city documents calls for starting construction on the expansion by 2008 and completing it in two years without closing the building.

Taxpayers financed a $74 million renovation of the arena nine years ago, when the Sonics were owned by Barry Ackerley. The current ownership group, led by Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz, purchased the team in 2001.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or