On March 4, Oklahoma City voters will decide whether to extend the MAPS for Kids penny sales tax expiring in December 2008 for a year to fund improvements to the Ford Center and for another three months to fund a practice facility if the NBA selects the city for a team.
The first year is expected to generate $97 million for the Ford Center improvements and, if extended three months, an additional $18 million to build the practice facility.
I’m voting yes for the tax extension, and here’s why: First, the Ford Center is a key element of our downtown economy. Although we depend on conventions to bring in people from outside Central Oklahoma to spend dollars downtown, it’s the Ford Center that brings in folks from neighboring cities and counties to spend money while attending the multitude of events it hosts.
The Ford Center has always been considered a work in progress. While its basic infrastructure is adequate, there were not sufficient monies in MAPS to fully dress it out with the amenities that are necessary for a state-of-the-art arena. Whether or not we get an NBA team, the city still benefits from making these needed improvements.
Finishing the arena will attract more events and generate greater attendance, satisfaction and spending from all events. Landing an NBA team because of the improvements is more than icing on the cake.
An NBA team provides a level of recognition that would help Oklahoma City transcend the negative stereotypes with which we are usually associated, such as dust bowls, tornadoes and a bombing. Only 29 cities in the world have an NBA team, and we could be one of them.
Some opponents to the tax extension feel that the owners of the Seattle SuperSonics have more than enough money to pay for these improvements themselves and should do so. Such an approach is not realistic.
Locating NBA teams is a seller’s market. Despite Seattle’s reluctance, there are other cities ready to use public financing to get a team. Just over our shoulder is Kansas City, Mo., with a facility ready to go.
The bonus we get with the Sonic owners is that they are our rich guys, who, hopefully out of civic loyalty, will be less likely to pull up the team and move it to another venue in the future.
There’s another important advantage to full-public ownership of the arena. The taxpayers’ representatives can better negotiate at arm’s length on the rent to be charged to all users. Jim Couch, city manager, and Tom Anderson, who oversees Ford Center contracts, have made assurances that the city will be getting fair-market rent from all users, including an NBA team. They are honorable men and we take them at their word, although we’ll still be watching.
Some voters question why just the citizens of Oklahoma City should pay for the improvements to the Ford Center arena when it is enjoyed by citizens throughout Central Oklahoma. This concern is lessened by considering that the city gets the sales tax revenues from the arena and surrounding businesses.
If the voters of Oklahoma City impose this sales tax upon themselves to upgrade the Ford Center arena to NBA standards, an important quid pro quo should be repealing the statute passed in 2006 to accommodate the temporary relocation of the New Orleans Hornets that exempted sales taxes on NBA ticket sales.
Oklahoma granted that exemption out of compassion for the unique situation the Hornets were in. Now, let’s get to business by extending the penny sales tax, making the improvements, rescinding the sales tax exemption, getting the team and playing ball. Everybody wins!
Bleakley is publisher of Oklahoma Gazette.