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Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Tax would go to improve Ford Center, in hopes of landing Sonics

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma City residents will vote March 4 on whether to levy a one-cent sales tax to pay for improvements at Ford Center in hopes of luring an NBA team, the City Council decided Wednesday.

The vote will take place about six weeks before NBA owners meet to vote on an application by the Seattle SuperSonics to relocate to Oklahoma City.

The tax would last for 15 months, starting on Jan. 1, 2009, the day after a current one-cent sales tax used to fund school improvements expires, and would generate an estimated $121.6 million. It would also pay for an NBA practice facility.

But the practice facility and other improvements planned specifically for the NBA presence will not be built if a team does not relocate to the city. In that event, the tax would be shortened to 12 months and would raise about $97 million.

Mayor Mick Cornett characterized the election as a referendum on the NBA in Oklahoma City.

"I think people want it for this city," Cornett said after the council's unanimous vote to schedule the election. An NBA team would increase tourism in the city and have a positive economic impact, Cornett said.

The efforts of the Sonics' Oklahoma City-based ownership group, led by Clay Bennett, to move the team from Seattle has ended up in federal court, where a judge will decide whether the team must honor the final three years on its lease at KeyArena, the NBA's smallest venue. The team's lease in Seattle expires after the 2009-2010 season.

The Ford Center hosted the New Orleans Hornets for two seasons after Hurricane Katrina forced the team's temporary relocation, and average attendance was 18,329, about 1,000 below the arena's capacity.

The building, which opened in 2002, cost about $89 million to build.

If approved by voters, sales tax revenue would pay for a variety of amenities that would vault the Ford Center to one of the finest NBA venues in the U.S., said Donald R. Dethlefs Jr., president of the sports architecture firm Sink Combs Dethlefs of Denver.

"I think it's going to compare very well," Dethlefs said.

The improvements include new restaurants, bars and concession areas, a television studio suitable for team interviews, decorative floors and walls, improved bathrooms, a warm-up court, and new locker rooms.

Officials said the amenities would also make the Ford Center a better building for concerts, the Big 12 basketball tournament and other events. But some city council members and citizens worried that taxpayers are being asked to pay more than their fair share to bring an NBA team to the city.

Ward 2 council member Sam Bowman said asking taxpayers to build a practice facility for the team"is just giving it to them on a silver platter." He urged city officials who will negotiate a lease with the NBA to insist that the team participate financially in the project.

Teacher Ed Holzberger disagreed with using a sales tax to finance the project, suggesting that a less regressive method, such as a tax on NBA game tickets, would raise enough money.

Former state Rep. Wanda Jo Peltier Stapleton said tax dollars should not be used"to pad the pockets" of team owners who are capable to paying for the improvements themselves.

But many council members said it is in the city's best interest to have an NBA team. Ward 4 council member Pete White predicted the campaign for the tax will be about"cheerleaders and dunk shots" and not the cost of the improvements.

"If we don't do it we will lose an opportunity to have the NBA come," White said.

Ward 6 council member Ann Simank said a professional sports franchise is vital for the city's prestige and future growth.

"I think this is really important to our city to get us there," Simank said.