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Washington lawmakers look for ways to bring back Sonics

The Seattle SuperSonics play the Dallas Mavericks in the fourth quarter  at Key Arena in Seattle on April 13, 2008. (John Froschauer / AP)
The Seattle SuperSonics play the Dallas Mavericks in the fourth quarter at Key Arena in Seattle on April 13, 2008. (John Froschauer / AP)

OLYMPIA – Washington needs to find a way to get the Sonics back in Seattle, a Spokane senator says, but just how the Legislature can help do that isn’t clear.

The Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee held the first of what could be three meetings focusing on bringing an NBA team back to the state on Thursday.

“We’re going to get the Sonics back and it is going to take a statewide effort and a bipartisan effort,” Committee Chairman Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, vowed at the end of the hourlong session.

The committee went over the history of how Seattle got the Sonics in 1966, and lost them some 40 years later when proposals to build a new arena or remodel the existing one fell apart.

Some senior members of the committee attributed the loss of the Sonics to either “stadium fatigue” or political intrigue.

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said proposals to get state support for a new home for the team met with public “blowback” after the state granted tax breaks and other inducements for what became Safeco Field for the Mariners in 1995 and CenturyLink Field for the Seahawks in 1997. Proposals died in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

“It was not against basketball, per se. It was a sense of the public, that they’d had it,” Keiser said.

In 2008, the team moved to Oklahoma City.

Another committee member, Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, said he was present when Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer was asked to buy the Sonics that year; Rossi said he was asked to get involved, but initially declined because he was running for governor. Eventually he came out in favor of letting King County vote on a package, and expected Gov. Chris Gregoire to follow suit.

“I got out there, she refused to get out there,” Rossi said.

The loss of the Sonics later became a bone of contention in his rematch with Gregoire, whom Rossi and some Republicans blamed for not putting enough pressure on the Legislature to approve the package. But Gregoire beat Rossi and won a second term.

Since the Sonics left, Seattle officials have been approached about plans to bring another NBA franchise to the city. An investor group headed by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen has a proposal that involves building a new arena in the SoDo area, near Safeco and CenturyLink stadiums. It has support from King County officials, particularly County Executive Dow Constantine, who contends the the public transit and parking opportunities are best there.

But Seattle city officials are looking for proposals to remodel Seattle Center and Key Arena. They are joined by officials from the nearby Port of Seattle, who are worried about more traffic congestion just outside the entrance to the major shipping facility.

“The Sonics should come back, the only consideration is where?” Kurt Beckett of the Northwest Seaport Alliance told the committee. Shippers delay their trucks during events at the existing stadiums, and the new sports and entertainment arena with an estimated 250 events per year could convince them to use other ports.

Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, suggested building the stadium at the old Longacres Racetrack, which isn’t far from his district. He also thinks the city of Seattle should have bought the team, similar to the way Green Bay owns the Packers and has strong support for its NFL team.

“Aaron Rodgers helps, too,” Baumgartner said.

The committee hopes to bring Seattle city officials and King County officials together to discuss different options.

Baumgartner expects to introduce some kind of legislation by early March, but will wait for suggestions from other lawmakers before writing it.

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