Turning the Key

It might be two years from now or next season, but barring an unlikely buy-back scenario involving Steve Balmer and friends, most would agree that the Seattle Supersonics are out of here.
So where does that leave KeyArena, a citywide and regional attraction that draws in 1.2 million visitors a year? According to city officials and others involved in the issue, it will be in remarkably good shape.
That's despite needing to plug a hole left by the loss of the 41 games a year the Sonics have been playing in the arena, said Seattle Center director Robert Nellams.
"Based on the (2006) analysis done by the KeyArena subcommittee, we anticipate the KeyArena will continue to be viable... for the foreseeable future," he said. "It shows the facility can still be profitable."
The analysis links the future of the Sonics to that of the Storm, but the new owners of the Storm want to stay at the Key, Nellams said.
On the flip side, the Thunderbirds hockey team, which plays 36 games a year at the Key, is moving to new digs in Kent, said Deborah Daoust, the interim public information officer at the Seattle Center. It won't be a big loss, she said, explaining that the hockey team brings in less than $10,000 a year to the arena.
The event mix will change without the Sonics, Nellams said, and having 41 nights open up at the arena means the Seattle Center could bring in more concerts, family shows, one-time events and private events, he added. Seattle University's basketball team is also negotiating with the Seattle Center to play some of its games in the KeyArena, Nellams said.
Concerts could turn out to be key at the Key, according to Daoust. "On the concert front, the Key is the only place in town for large concerts."
She conceded that larger stadiums in Tacoma and Everett also compete for band bookings, but the KeyArena has more panache, is how Daoust put it. Nellams agrees, noting that the Rolling Stones, U-2 and the reunion of the Police all played at the Seattle Center arena.
John Coney, a citizen activist who served on the KeyArena subcommittee, has other ideas. "There are several possibilities for leases," he said. Rugby football, a sport that was successful in Spokane is one possibility, according to Coney. "My personal favorite is indoor soccer, which was successful around here for awhile," he added.
Echoing Daoust and Nellams, Coney said a lot of musical groups don't perform at the Key because the Sonics have taken up so many dates.
City Councilman Tom Rasmussen, who chairs the Seattle City Council's Parks and Seattle Center Committee, is clear about one thing. He wants the Sonics to play out the end of the team's lease.
But the team's eventual loss will open up time and space at the Key for other events and activities, agreed Rasmussen, who concedes it will take time to plug the hole. "But we'll do it, and I believe we can do it successfully."
He also noted that the city council is expected to approve a new master plan for the Seattle Center sometime later this summer. The master plan doesn't assume the Sonics would leave right away, but making up the loss when the team does go is a goal of the council, Rasmussen added.
One way to do that is to have the councilors meet with people and vendors who could become potential tenants at the Key, he said.
There are already continual efforts to ramp up marketing at Seattle Center, and the efforts have been successful not only at the Key, but also in other parts of the campus, Daoust said. She pointed to the addition of the Vera Project in the Northwest Rooms as an example.
The KeyArena subcommittee recommended in its final report that $20 million be spent to upgrade and do maintenance work at the arena, and Nellams agrees with the assessment. "You need to do that periodically," he said, "no matter what you were doing."[[In-content Ad]]