SEATTLE — The Seattle City Council unanimously approved plans for a privately funded $700 million renovation of KeyArena on Monday, clearing one of the last major hurdles in the city’s bid to land an expansion NHL franchise.
The 8-0 vote was the last step needed to strengthen Seattle’s expansion application and it means a team could be playing in the new building during the 2020-21 season.
The next phase in the arena/franchise process comes next week when Seattle Hockey Partners, the ownership group attempting to land the expansion team, presents before the NHL Board of Governors’ Executive Committee.
"It’s a good moment. I think it’s the beginning of the journey. It’s not the end of the journey. We have a lot of work to do, but at least now we get to go do the work," said Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group, which is undertaking the renovation of the building that opened in 1962.
The vote ended a debate that began in the mid-2000s when Howard Schultz, then the owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, said the city-owned KeyArena needed renovations. The lack of luxury amenities and a challenging lease agreement ultimately led to the Sonics leaving following the 2008 season and moving to Oklahoma City, where the franchise was rebranded as the Thunder.
Numerous arena plans have been presented since but none had gotten to this point. And while the vote didn’t provide healing for fans hurt by the Sonics move, it did create the likelihood that the city will land an NHL team soon and could one day see the NBA return.
"This is just a great deal for the city. … This is world class. This is a legacy project," City Council President Bruce Harrell said.
For now, the NHL is the priority. The pitch to the Executive Committee next week should be mostly straightforward. Seattle is the largest market in the United States that doesn’t have a winter professional sports team. The local economy is booming and season ticket deposits for the prospective team were cut off at 33,000 earlier this year after a swell of interest.
"I don’t think we have to say much," said Tod Leiweke, President and CEO of Seattle Hockey Partners. "I think it speaks for itself. An 8-0 vote, a process that concluded when many people said it just simply couldn’t be done. We said we were going to put our best forward and today the city helps us do that."
The goal is to have the building ready by the fall of 2020 so a team could start that season. Hitting that target will depend partly on when construction can actually begin. Part of the agreement with the city requires that an NHL franchise be acquired before arena construction can begin. Whether conditional approval from the NHL or a recommendation from the Executive Committee is enough to begin that process may depend on the city.
Either way, Tim Leiweke said every minute is precious in getting the project done in essentially two years.
"But there is no reason that we can’t hopefully get a little bit of momentum next week and convince people that a November, push-dirt, get in there and start working, works," Leiweke said.
The final scheduled event for the arena in its current state is an Oct. 5 NBA exhibition game between the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings. At some point after that, the keys will be turned over to Oak View Group.
"Now we really get to dream about the National Hockey League, we get to dream about a presentation next week, we get to dream about the return of the NBA. Let’s go," Tod Leiweke said.