DALLAS — Oklahoma City will spend $121.6 million to upgrade a city-owned arena to accommodate a possible move by the Seattle SuperSonics of the National Basketball Association if voters approve a 15-month extension of a 1% sales tax. The City Council on Wednesday unanimously set the election for March 4, about six weeks before the NBA Board of Governors meets to decide on a proposal by the Oklahoma City-based team owners to move the team to the Ford Center.If voters approve, the tax will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2009, the day after the scheduled expiration of a 1% sales tax that financed public school projects in the metropolitan area.Oklahoma City’s effort to become the new home of the SuperSonics includes renovations to the center and construction of a $20 million off-site practice facility. If the team has not signed a lease agreement for the Ford Center by June 1, the renovations would continue but the practice facility would not be built. The tax extension will be limited to 12 months, with $98 million of anticipated revenues.A group of Oklahoma City investors purchased the basketball team in July 2006 for $350 million.The new owners, led by Richard Bennett, president of the investment firm Dorchester Capital, said they wanted to move the team to Oklahoma City because Seattle’s KeyArena, built in 1962 and upgraded in 1995 at a cost of $74.5 million, was inadequate. The Seattle arena is the smallest venue in the NBA, with 17,072 seats.When a deal for a new arena was not reached by Bennett’s Oct. 1 deadline, he informed the NBA of his intention to move the team to Oklahoma City in 2008. A suit filed by Seattle seeking to enforce the team’s lease, which extends through October 2010, is currently pending in federal court.Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said in a statement that the renovations to the Ford Center were to have been part of a larger package presented to voters in fall 2008, but he asked the City Council to move the election up to demonstrate the city’s commitment to the NBA.“If we don’t pass this election, we are not going to get a team,” Cornett said. “If you look at the NBA’s history, at relocated franchises, I can’t think of one that went to a city that didn’t have a commitment to a new arena long term.”The NBA Board of Governors, which includes representatives of the 30 NBA team owners, will consider the move at its meeting on April 17.“We got to looking at the timing of this Board of Governors vote in April and realized that best intentions were not going to make it with the Board of Governors,” Cornett said. “They were going to need a firm financial commitment.“Why should we expect an NBA franchise to make a long-term commitment to us when we’re not willing to make a long-term commitment to the facility?”Ford Center, completed in 2002 at a cost of $89.2 million, hosted the New Orleans Hornets for the 2005-2006 and the 2006-2007 seasons after they had to relocate due to Hurricane Katrina. The facility has some 20,000 seats.The planned renovations will be focused on the concourse areas. Proposals include new restaurants, bars and concession areas, rooftop gardens, sky boxes, a television studio, decorative tiles on the concrete floors and walls, larger rest rooms, a practice court, team offices, and expanded locker rooms.A new grand entrance and multi-story atrium will be built on the southwest corner of the building, along with a 12,000-square-foot “family fun zone.”“We based the project on amenities in current NBA arenas, but especially the American Airlines Center in Dallas,” said Kristy Yager, Oklahoma City’s public information director. “Even if we don’t get an NBA team here, we’ll have a much better facility for hosting Big 12 Conference basketball tournaments and other large events.”The arena upgrades were developed by the Oklahoma City office of the Benham Companies and Denver-based Sink, Combs, Dethlefs.Oklahoma City currently levies an 8.375% sales tax, which includes the state’s 4.5% tax, the 1% MAPS for Kids tax that will expire Dec. 31, a 2% tax that goes to the city’s general fund, an 0.75% public safety tax, and a 0.125% tax for the city zoo.
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