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Columnist Berry Tramel, who got our hopes up waaaay too high while the Hornets were in town … we’ll, maybe our wishful thinking helped with that, as well … finally got it right. In today’s Oklahoman, he wrote:

City’s major league future hinges on March 4 election
By Berry Tramel
Wed February 20, 2008
The Oklahoman

The NBA is up to us.

Us being the registered voters of Oklahoma City, who on March 4 will decide whether the Seattle SuperSonics relocate to the Ford Center and OKC becomes America’s 45th major-league city.

Did you read that clearly?

Once, Oklahoma City’s NBA dreams rested in the power of others. The whims of an individual, like George Shinn. The response of another city, like Seattle. The weather, which cast a plague upon New Orleans and gave Oklahoma City a chance to shine. David Stern’s NBA itself.

No longer. The power is ours. The Sonics are coming, if OKC says come on.

It’s up to us. If the voters want a team, they’ve got one. Pass that March 4 sales-tax extension, which would renovate the Ford Center, and that’s the day of transformation.

The day Oklahoma City goes permanent major league.

No other result is possible after the revelations of the past few days. The NBA has played its cards, with the commissioner saying it’s over in Seattle. Seattle officials admitting as much, even to the point of talking about negotiations to break the KeyArena lease.

Stern last weekend revealed that the Sonics had made a $26 million buyout offer, which was rejected, and here was a response from Seattle city council president Richard Conlin, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “As an opening gun in negotiations, while it’s not an offer we’d accept, it’s not that far from a credible offer. So I don’t think it’s a bad-faith effort on their part.”

That’s a civil thing to say, and civility has been in short supply from Seattle officials during the last year.

The sides appear on the verge of genuine communication, now that the Sonics’ exit is inevitable, and the only question is where are they going.

The answer is Oklahoma City, if March 4 goes yes, or who knows, if the vote goes no.

Early polls say the vote will pass. Both sides have valid points.

The yes side says Oklahoma City would be transformed, and that’s no doubt true on this level: It would elevate us into that rare club of major-league cities, and while we can debate the benefits of rubbing shoulders in public perception with the likes of San Antonio and Kansas City and Nashville — if not New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — it is absolutely certain that those shoulders will be rubbed.

The no side says public money should not be used to pad the pockets of millionaires (a bogus claim) or build facilities that only a certain segment of the population can afford to use (much more legitimate charge).

When someone asks how much Clay Bennett, Aubrey McClendon and the other Sonic owners are going to contribute to the NBA-in-OKC cause, there’s an easy answer: $400 million, for starters.

That’s about what they’ve spent so far in reaching this point, with more to come.

They (over)paid $350 million for the Sonics in the first place, which insured an Oklahoma City group owned an NBA franchise, then they spent millions more on trying to get a new arena in Seattle.

Whether or not anyone believes they truly wanted to stay in Seattle or not, those millions were spent. And now it’s going to cost them tens of millions more to leave early.

Truth is, $121 million, the estimated price tag on the Ford Center vote, is a pretty cheap price to join the Major League Club.

But again, people who argue there are better ways to spend tax money are not nuts. It’s possible major-league status isn’t worth it. I think it is, but I could be wrong.

Some say the Sonics could come even if the vote fails, but I don’t see it.

Oklahoma City, like San Antonio and Salt Lake City, is a marginal NBA market even with all oars rowing. And that includes an elite arena.

No way the NBA settles for the current Ford Center, which was a glorious short-term solution for the Hornets and has been a steal for Oklahoma City at $90 million. But the Ford Center is not a long-term NBA solution.

If the March 4 vote fails, then Stern and his board of governors say, no way, let’s try San Jose. Or Kansas City. Or most likely Anaheim.

The NBA does not want another Sacramento, a market crazy about its product but playing in an arena that won’t sustain the league’s Monopoly-money economics.

If the March 4 vote fails, my guess is Bennett and Co. withdraw the relocation application and eventually sell to the highest bidder. Someone who doesn’t live in the 405 area code.

So this is the chance. This is the opportunity to go major league. It will not pass this way again for perhaps decades. We’ve got local owners, in possession of a franchise that can be moved, to a market hot on the NBA’s radar.

All that’s missing is this vote. It’s up to us.

I’ve generally not been a big fan of Berry Tramel’s NBA future-fact predictions, but the above article is spot on and hits the nail right on the mark, and whether Okc becomes an NBA city is truly in our hands. On March 4. On March 4, we will know. We will not see another March 4 in our lifetimes … at least, I won’t in mine.

This space in time presents one of those rare convergences of events that one rarely sees duplicated in one’s lifetime and I think that our Mayor shares that perception. That sounds dramatic if not melodramatic, but I really think that it is actually just such a thing. Consider the following …

  • 1. MAPS. In Okc, Mayor Ron Norick’s Maps initiative was passed in 1993. In 1998, it became evident that the generated revenue would not fund the arena element of the plan. Norick’s successor, Mayor Kirk Humphreys, was elected on the proposition of finishing Maps “right” and when the 6 month Maps extension passed what would become the Ford Center became funded. Construction started in 1999 and the arena opened June 8, 2002, as the Ford Center. But for this, all else which follows would be irrelevant and we’d not be having this discussion today. The NBA would be irrelevant to us as a city. But for some preliminary discussions between Mayor Cornett and the NBA Commissioner pre-Katrina, we weren’t even on the NBA’s radar — David Stern suggested that we consider approaching the NHL instead. As it would develop, those early conversations lead to something completely unexpected and unforseen.
  • 2. Katrina. Katrina hit New Orleans in late August 2005 making it impossible that the Hornets play in New Orleans for the 2005-06 season. In September, a deal was struck that Okc would host the Hornets as the home for most home games during the season. Before that was agreed upon, the Commissioner suggested Okc to George Shinn who said, “Oklahoma where?” George learned where even though he could not remember the city’s name at the opening regular season game (even though 2 pre-season games had already been played here). Season ticket sales in Okc amazed the NBA world. Corporate sponsorships did, too. As for the fans, the Hornets opening pre-season game in Oklahoma City occurred on October 23, 2005 … my 1st NBA game.
  • 3. Amazing OKC! The 2005-2006 Hornets season in Okc amazed not only the NBA world, but Oklahoma Citians, as well. Me included. Oklahoma City fans poured into the Ford Center with sellout and/or near sellout attendances for most of the games, despite the abysmal Hornets 2004-2005 season of 18 wins and 64 losses. “Loud City” was born. In time, Berry Tramel virtually promised Okc that the Hornets would not be returning to New Orleans. Why should they? A hidden gold mine had been discovered in Oklahoma City. Shinn wanted to stay …. at least for one more season but other reliable reports indicate that he wanted to stay permanently. They did stay one more season. An effort was made by Clay Bennett et al. during the 1st season to acquire an interest in the the Hornets. A “handshake” deal was announced by Berry Tramel. Whether so or not, the “deal” didn’t happen. Oklahoma Citians owned nothing in and of the NBA.
  • 4. Not until July 18, 2006. That’s when Professional Basketball Club LLC (Bennett et al.) purchased the Sonics and Storm from Howard Shultz, Starbucks coffee magnate. Clay Bennett announced his intention and preference to keep the teams in the Seattle, but with conditions: A new arena (other than the Key) and a new contract were required to be agreed to by October 31, 2007. Otherwise, all bets were off.
  • 5. Washington passes. Bennett’s group spent a good bit of money, hiring perhaps the best arena design firm in the country, to come up with a plan, and a location was found in Renton. Bennett did not initially want the matter be presented to a vote of the people, Seattle’s Proposition 91 being fresh in memory. During the legislative session, he relented and agreed that the proposed legislation which would partially fund the new Renton arena be submitted to a vote of the people. Notwithstanding, in the Legislature, the proposal died in committee, and the legislative approach was dead.
  • 6. Thumb-twiddling. Other not-very-serious initiatives occurred but nothing really happened as the October 31, 2007, “deadline” approached and, then, passed by. On November 2, 2007, Bennett’s group petitioned the NBA Board of Governors to move the teams to OKC. Later, the Storm (the women’s team) was sold to a Seattle group and then it was just down to the SuperSonics.
  • 7. Litigation. Without reviewing the history of the litigation which ensued, suffice it to say that Seattle’s litigation to enforce a specific performance provision in the lease which expires in 2010 is set for trial in June 2008. The litigation will determine whether the Sonics can leave and pay monetary damages if they want to leave before the end of the lease, or whether the specific performance elements of the lease are to be enforced so that the team would be required to stay in Seattle through 2010.
  • 8. The Mayor Talks With NBA. In December 2007, Mayor Cornett engaged in discussions with the NBA (David Stern, Commissioner, and his aides, most probably). The NBA let the mayor know what Oklahoma City’s “terms of entrance” into the NBA would be. The Mayor acted and placed the March 4 vote on the City Council’s January 2008 agenda and the Council decided that the matter would be decided on March 4 by a vote of the people, notwithstanding the haste with which the proposal had been put together.
  • 9. Settlement? In the meantime, the Sonics offered Seattle $26.5 M and the privilege of keeping the team’s name in exchange for an early exit. Seattle declined. Whether additional buy-out negotiations will occur and/or succeed is anyone’s guess. But, the offer and the offer’s rejection was enough for Commissioner Stern.
  • 10. Stern Speaks. Saturday, February 16, Commissioner Stern as much as said that the Sonics would be moving from Seattle, as soon as the pending litigation and/or settlement of that litigation would allow, and that could be as early as the 2008-2009 season. While the Commissioner was rather clear about that, he was less clear about where the Sonics might be moving to. While Oklahoma City may be inferred/presumed, if the March 4 vote does not pass, it may well be elsewhere than Oklahoma City.
  • 11. The March 4 vote occurs.
  • 12. BOG Meets. The Board of Governors meets in April 2008 to determine its decision on Bennett’s group’s request to relocate to Oklahoma City.

Each of the above points is important in the chain which has led to today. The points range from “act of city” (Maps), “act of God” (Katrina) and the other “acts” by those described above.

Whether these events are serendipitous or fate or god based, I am not in a position to say. But, it is my very serious guess that the confluence of these events will not occur again for a very very long while.

What it all adds up to at this point is simple: Oklahoma City faces a door on March 4. If Okc opens that door, Okc has an NBA team. If it doesn’t, Okc says goodbye to the NBA for the foreseeable future.

Tramel finally got it right.

In other opinion pieces published locally today comes this one from The Oklahoma Gazzette.

Why I’m voting yes
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
By Bill Bleakley

On March 4, Oklahoma City voters will decide whether to extend the MAPS for Kids penny sales tax expiring in December 2008 for a year to fund improvements to the Ford Center and for another three months to fund a practice facility if the NBA selects the city for a team.

The first year is expected to generate $97 million for the Ford Center improvements and, if extended three months, an additional $18 million to build the practice facility.

I’m voting yes for the tax extension, and here’s why: First, the Ford Center is a key element of our downtown economy. Although we depend on conventions to bring in people from outside Central Oklahoma to spend dollars downtown, it’s the Ford Center that brings in folks from neighboring cities and counties to spend money while attending the multitude of events it hosts.

The Ford Center has always been considered a work in progress. While its basic infrastructure is adequate, there were not sufficient monies in MAPS to fully dress it out with the amenities that are necessary for a state-of-the-art arena. Whether or not we get an NBA team, the city still benefits from making these needed improvements.

Finishing the arena will attract more events and generate greater attendance, satisfaction and spending from all events. Landing an NBA team because of the improvements is more than icing on the cake.

An NBA team provides a level of recognition that would help Oklahoma City transcend the negative stereotypes with which we are usually associated, such as dust bowls, tornadoes and a bombing. Only 29 cities in the world have an NBA team, and we could be one of them.

Some opponents to the tax extension feel that the owners of the Seattle SuperSonics have more than enough money to pay for these improvements themselves and should do so. Such an approach is not realistic.

Locating NBA teams is a seller’s market. Despite Seattle’s reluctance, there are other cities ready to use public financing to get a team. Just over our shoulder is Kansas City, Mo., with a facility ready to go.

The bonus we get with the Sonic owners is that they are our rich guys, who, hopefully out of civic loyalty, will be less likely to pull up the team and move it to another venue in the future.

There’s another important advantage to full-public ownership of the arena. The taxpayers’ representatives can better negotiate at arms length on the rent to be charged to all users. Jim Couch, city manager, and Tom Anderson, who oversees Ford Center contracts, have made assurances that the city will be getting fair-market rent from all users, including an NBA team. They are honorable men and we take them at their word, although we’ll still be watching.

Some voters question why just the citizens of Oklahoma City should pay for the improvements to the Ford Center arena when it is enjoyed by citizens throughout Central Oklahoma. This concern is lessened by considering that the city gets the sales tax revenues from the arena and surrounding businesses.

If the voters of Oklahoma City impose this sales tax upon themselves to upgrade the Ford Center arena to NBA standards, an important quid pro quo should be repealing the statute passed in 2006 to accommodate the temporary relocation of the New Orleans Hornets that exempted sales taxes on NBA ticket sales.

Oklahoma granted that exemption out of compassion for the unique – situation the Hornets were in. Now, let’s get to business by extending the penny sales tax, making the improvements, rescinding the sales tax exemption, getting the team and playing ball. Everybody wins!

Bleakley is publisher of Oklahoma Gazette.

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