Renton, Bellevue waiting on Sonics' decision

With the start of the legislative session two days away and still no arena plan from the Sonics, Bellevue and Renton community leaders are making a late push to persuade the owners to build the arena in their city.

But the team says it won't make a decision until later in the month.

The team had hoped to get a plan out as early as November but is reworking some designs to cut the cost of the proposed project and has to finish geologic surveys and traffic mitigation, said team spokesman Jim Kneeland.

The plan will include a preferred site, some rough plans for the building, including cost, and some financing options for state lawmakers to consider.

"This is somewhat of a monumental task," Kneeland said.

Sonics owner Clay Bennett met Thursday and Friday with officials from both Eastside cities, Gov. Christine Gregoire and King County Executive Ron Sims. While he did not disclose much new information, according to several officials, he explained the delays.

Bennett wants a proposal finished by the time he comes back from Oklahoma City on Jan. 18, Kneeland said. The team is designing an arena much larger than Seattle's KeyArena, with facilities versatile enough to host several sports and political conventions.

"This is not about the Sonics," Kneeland said. It's about "an opportunity to have a building that most tier-one cities are working on today."

The Sonics are looking at 21 acres of Boeing land in Renton, near Lake Washington, as well as a 14-acre property on Bellevue's "Auto Row," near downtown. The team has not decided between the two sites, and is "not even leaning in one direction," Kneeland said.

Bellevue is just picking up steam with its lobbying effort, while Renton has been more aggressive over the past year in marketing itself.

"Renton is hungrier," said Bill Taylor, CEO of the Renton Chamber of Commerce.

The Bellevue Chamber of Commerce and Bellevue Downtown Association sent a letter to Bennett on Thursday, citing the city's central location and large number of downtown restaurants and other amenities.

"Hopefully, we can seize the opportunity," said Betty Nokes, Bellevue chamber CEO.

The Renton chamber passed a resolution of support this week, though it said any arena deal shouldn't impose "new taxes to be borne exclusively by Renton residents."

The Sonics better hurry up, according to state leaders. House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said the team should get a plan to the Legislature within the first couple of weeks of the session or its chances of winning support will diminish.

According to Scott Merriman, an aide to the governor, Gregoire told Bennett the team needs to "respect the Legislature's timeline" and get something out as soon as possible.

Kneeland said legislators will have "plenty of time" to consider the plan, and that the new team owners will still submit their proposal much sooner than the old owners, who lobbied for arena money late in the last two legislative sessions.

Regardless of timing, the Sonics may not find a particularly welcoming crowd in Olympia. Several legislative leaders said this week the state has higher priorities, such as education and health care, than paying for sports arenas.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she won't rule out a Sonics arena, but, "I need to see the plan."

Opponents of taxpayer subsidies for an arena released a poll this week that showed significant opposition in King County to a taxpayer handout for the Sonics.

The poll of 401 county voters, conducted by Elway Research, found 53 percent would favor an initiative identical to one that passed in Seattle last November restricting taxpayer subsidies for professional sports teams. Just 25 percent said they would oppose such a measure and 22 percent were undecided.

Chris Van Dyk, an organizer for Citizens for More Important Things, the anti-arena group that commissioned the poll, said the results should serve as a warning to legislators that the Sonics' ambitions in Renton or Bellevue will prove just as politically difficult as they did in Seattle.

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or