Thiel: Arena rally sends strong vibe to councils

Thiel: Arena rally sends strong vibe to councils

Credit: David Wike / KING 5

Crowds cheer on plans for a new basketball and hockey arena at a rally in Seattle's Occidental Park.


by Art Thiel


Posted on June 15, 2012 at 7:10 AM

Updated Friday, Jun 15 at 9:30 PM

As the Seattle basketball space-time continuum ripped across Pioneer Square -- on one end was Slick Watts for the gray-hairs and the other end Nate Robinson for the tat pack -- one little kid was clearly having the best time surfing the energy.

The smile on Chris Hansen's face could not be chipped off with a hammer and chisel. He's the 44-year-old rich guy from Roosevelt High whose $290 million offer to build an arena that would bring back the NBA gave him something rare Thursday afternoon -- the chance to be 15 again.

An adored 15, at that.

From several thousand fans garbed in Sonics green and gold boomed a chant:  "Thank you, Chris! Thank you, Chris!" The brick walls of Occidental Park seemed to shake.

Backstage minutes earlier, just before the two-hour party organized by Hansen's PR crafters drew to a close, a pudgy young fan walked up to Hansen, who was wearing a green Sonics jacket with "Payton" across the back, and blithely handed him his smart phone. Fan asked mogul to take a picture of him, the fan, with Shawn Kemp. The former Sonics all-star draped his arm around the guy, Hansen took the picture and the fan retrieved the phone and was off with a bright, "Thanks, dude."

I'm thinking former Sonics owner Howard Schultz would have had "people" for such deeds.

Even with the high passion of a fan base unleashed from four years with a broken heart, the afternoon was so Seattle casual it seemed to wear Crocs. King County Executive Dow Constantine found himself backstage between speaking chores when ex-Sonics star Detlef Schrempf whooshed by on his way up the stage stairs.

"Yow," said Dow. Star-struck, he nevertheless went low volume so as not to attract attention. So Seattle.

The easy mingle of generations, cultures, races and wallet sizes has always been a big part of the gravitational pull of sports. It's always taken for granted. But Thursday, there was no game. No contest. Just the memory of loss and the desire to retrieve. So the purity of purpose stood out. Throw in music by the Presidents of the United States of America, Blue Scholars, Common Market and Macklemore, and the afternoon was a little primal too. A powerful vibe.

Was this emotional wallop calculated? Of course. Down to the minute on stage, and up to the minute strategically. The second game of the NBA Finals featuring the Oklahoma City Thunder, known hereabouts as Baja Sonics, was the raw backdrop. Ahead next week are deliberations by the councils of the city and King County, who will hear testimony from Hansen on why it's good to give him what amounts to a $200 million loan. Co-signers for Hansen on the loan? Steve Ballmer and the next-gen Nordstroms, names that are fairly fireproof hereabouts.

The moment was ripe.

As with comedy, timing with business deals is nearly everything. Hansen's offer came out of nowhere in February, complete with a nearly purchased site, which was chosen mostly because it came pre-zoned for stadiums. Opponents, mostly of the site, have been on the defensive since then, even with often legitimate complaints about increased congestion in what potentially is probably the most intensely mixed of uses for any two-square-mile chunk of metropolitan North America.

The emergence of the ex-Sonics team as a national powerhouse can only be considered fortuitous for arena advocates, because it throws success in the beagle faces of a fan base who had been bushwhacked by Schultz, the NBA and the business and political communities in Seattle and OKC, a fan base whose angst has been subject of numerous national media stories this week.

Hansen and crew, via social media, sports-talk radio and the shrunken American attention span, has generated a sense of urgency despite the fact that this project is light-years ahead of any of its Seattle predecessors.

Consider: The bond measure creating funding for a multi-purpose domed stadium was passed by voters in 1968. Construction began in 1972 because it took FOUR FREAKIN' YEARS to choose a site for the Kingdome.

For basketball fans -- including Hansen -- it's time for a deep breath and a hold on the scold for the Mariners, the Port of Seattle, the industrial council and the railroads. The project is going way too fast for a collective group of site opponents that has been hosed before by commitments broken by city government. Their skepticism is legit.

More than congestion, the arena is a flashpoint for a civic clash over the fate of SoDo. Every discerning participant in the debate knows that's the heart of thr argument. Hansen and others believe the re-development of much of SoDo into higher-end uses is inevitable. The stakeholders think otherwise.

So it is left to the councils, Constantine and Seattle mayor Mike McGinn to navigate righting a wrong -- the Sonics' departure -- without making one place and numerous businesses pay for the consequences.

In a moment apart from the hub-bub, Constantine, who admitted to surprise at the turnout -- "I thought maybe a thousand; it's not a beautiful summer day here," he said -- doesn't think the task is as hard as it seems.

"You know, this deal is not any more complicated that a lot of things I and the council deal with all the time," he said. "But because it's sports, here we are."

Because it's sports, the problems may get the attention now that SoDo should have had years ago.

"The transportation challenges exist now, without an arena, and the port has lost some business now, without an arena," he said. "The problems aren't because of the arena. But the solutions could be because of the arena, because it finally catalyzes the conversation and gets us off  the dime.

"If we move aside the heat and focus on the problems, we have the resources and the brains to solve it."

That remains to be seen, but it's not an unreasonable forecast. Hansen and his advisers added some momentum Thursday by summoning emotions of the fan base at exactly the right time to bring pressure to bear on the councils' decision-making.

The councils will have reams of data and testimony  to analyze, but as any politician knows, when competing sides have nearly equal logic, the tie is broken by the heart.

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