KeyArena would get much-needed improvements as an interim NBA arena. Plans are under way for a new SODO arena that would be home to an NBA franchise. Photo by Avneet Chattha. 

KeyArena would get much-needed improvements as an interim NBA arena. Plans are under way for a new SODO arena that would be home to an NBA franchise. Photo by Avneet Chattha. 

The highly anticipated return of the SuperSonics has had all of Seattle buzzing in recent weeks. Businesses throughout the city see the arrival of an NBA team as an economic stimulus, and general consensus agrees. 

Yet, businesses in lower Queen Anne may only see a short-term boost for two or three years, followed by years of potential hardship, according to a local community interest group.

Members of Uptown Alliance fear that, after the new Sonics leave for a newly proposed arena, KeyArena will be torn down. Uptown Alliance co-president John Coney said, “There is no future for KeyArena in its current configuration."

The Uptown Alliance believes that if changes are not made to KeyArena maximizing its usage, the future is bleak. The loss of KeyArena would result in a ripple effect for the entire Uptown area. Businesses that rely on the venue to bring in large crowds via the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, Rat City Rollergirls, Seattle University basketball program and other entertainment will cripple the neighborhood.

Carolyn Conklin, an apartment owner and Uptown Alliance’s co-committee leader, currently uses the proximity of her apartments to the arena as an attraction point. She fears that if KeyArena is demolished then fewer people will be inclined to rent in the area. 

Due to the lack of community representation on the Seattle City Council, the Uptown Alliance reached out to council members regarding the importance of this issue. In doing so, it has paired up with Seattle Center to preserve KeyArena.


‘All ideas on the table’

Working with the Alliance, Seattle Center director Robert Nellams has created a proposal that would keep KeyArena as a viable venue for small to mid-size performances, dividing it into two sections, one bigger than the other. The larger section would house crowds of up to 9,000; the smaller one would be for performances with around 2,000 attendees. 

On Thursday, Feb. 7, Seattle Center executives and the Uptown Alliance met with City Councilmember Jean Godden, who chairs the council’s Libraries, Utilities and Center Committee, to show her Nellams’ proposal. According to Coney and Conklin, she was happy with what she saw, but Godden said she will look into getting a study done to see if there are other ways to maximize the use of KeyArena. 

“All ideas are on the table, and the idea brought forth [at the Feb. 7 meeting] is just one of them. Keeping KeyArena as a viable venue is in the interest of the city. [And] we will be conferring with any number of people that are interested in KeyArena,” Godden said. “We will also be hiring a marketing consultant to see all the possible options that we are open to us.” 

The marketing consultant will be hired using the proceeds that are made through the Sonics’ play at KeyArena, and the amount has been negotiated with prospective team buyer Chris Hansen’s group.


A profitable venue

Deborah Dauost, director of communications for the Seattle Center, anticipates that, if and when the new arena is built in two or three years, the Sonics will not be the only ones leaving. She believes that current tenants the Seattle Storm, Rat City Rollergirls and Seattle University’s basketball teams will move to the proposed SODO arena.

“Everybody always wants to be in [a] new arena with newer technology, audio and sound, [a] state-of-the-art venue,” Dauost said. 

If the current tenants were to remain, Nellams has shown the city that KeyArena can be profitable. Since the 2008 departure of the Sonics to Oklahoma City, 2009 was the only year that the Seattle Center did not make a profit; it only held about 80 events that year — that is down from about 110 events the year before. In 2010, the venue broke even, and in 2011, there was a profit of about $350,000, according to Daust. 

While the final numbers are not in for 2012, Daoust said, “It’s looking like we doubled last year’s number."

The Seattle Center does not expect profit numbers to jump through the roof when the Sonics relocate to the city, since NBA games are not usually profitable compared with concerts. According to Daoust, KeyArena usually makes five times more with a concert than an NBA game. Yet, surrounding businesses expect a significant jump in business on game nights.

“Businesses thrive with KeyArena. People party and go out to the bars before and after events,” Conklin said. 

Moving parts

With the arrival of professional basketball becoming more and more like a sure thing as the days pass, the urgency to implement contingency plans increases for KeyArena. Yet, neither the City Council nor the Seattle Center has begun to make any improvements for the short- or long-term viability of the arena. 

This is because improvements can only be made once the NBA authorizes the relocation. The Seattle Center and the City Council have discussed with the Hansen group some of the changes that need to be made to the current arena, according to a recent Q13 Fox report on Jan 21. These upgrades include a new floor with the Sonics logos, audio/visual upgrades to give easy accessibility for networks and the possibility of a new scoreboard. 

While these items are always a good thing for KeyArena, there has been talk within council meetings of having both of those moved to the new arena when it is completed to save money, Dauost said. The lack of a scoreboard would give current tenants less of a reason to stay, thus heightening fears that KeyArena will not be seem as an asset any longer. 

For Coney, Conklin and the Uptown Alliance, preserving KeyArena is not just for the sake of small local businesses but also an important piece of history. It was built as a fundamental part of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, a piece of principal architect Paul Thiry’s futuristic concept, and has continued to be important to generations of Seattleites.

Conklin remembers taking her daughter ice skating and to the circus at KeyArena.  

 “The architecture [of] the building is beautiful and unique. You will not find many buildings like that anymore,” she said.

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