SEATTLE (AP) – Clay Bennett’s vision for a new arena in the Puget Sound region is taking shape as a venue beyond just a home for his two teams, the Seattle SuperSonics and WNBA’s Storm.

The National Hockey League? Sure. NCAA basketball tournaments? Absolutely. Concerts? Of course. Republican National Convention?

“Maybe Democratic National Convention would be good as well,” joked Bennett, a staunch Republican.

The Oklahoma City businessman returned to Seattle on Wednesday to announce the hiring of HOK Sport as the architectural firm that will be asked to create and possibly build the new arena that Bennett is seeking. He has said the teams cannot continue to play in their current KeyArena home in Seattle.

He was occasionally humorous on Wednesday, but Bennett’s ownership group is facing a serious time crunch to have a preliminary plan – including site selection, a funding framework and facility schematics – ready by the end of the year. Bennett acknowledged his original timeline is probably a bit behind schedule.

“We’re working hard,” he said. “We hope to be ready by the end of the year to have a preliminary economic model.”

Bennett reiterated that the economical model he hopes to take to the state Legislature in January will require a “significant public investment.” He also indicated the ownership group is done looking at possible sites for a new arena in the city of Seattle.

He wouldn’t elaborate when asked if that meant the group is now focused on the eastern suburb of Bellevue.

The selection of HOK Sport as the project architect comes two weeks after ICON Venue Group of Denver was chosen to be the developmental lead for the ownership group. ICON president Tim Romania said eight major sports architecture firms were competing for the job.

HOK’s Jim Walters will be called upon to create architectural plans for an arena complex with no stated budget and no current commitment of public money. Bennett admitted that’s not the smartest business plan. “It’s a gamble on Mr. Bennett’s part,” Walters said.

Added Bennett: “I hope it demonstrates where we are in this deal. We expect to get it done.” Once a plan is prepared, Bennett’s next challenge would be gaining legislative help. Some contact with key legislators has been made, but Bennett’s group has yet to make serious overtures, wanting to present a complete plan.

“We hope something can be determined early in the Legislature and we hope that we’re doing the appropriate ground work for that to take place,” Bennett said.

“But the Sonics cannot survive in KeyArena.”

AP-ES-11-29-06 2245EST

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