August 29, 2012

Virginia arena plan has no mention of Kings

Kings fans, take a breath. This city doesn't appear ready to take your team.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Kings fans, take a breath. This city doesn't appear ready to take your team.

City officials and a sports and entertainment firm released a preliminary plan Tuesday to build a new sports arena a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean beaches.

The plan was short on details. No financing plan or firm price tag for the facility has been compiled. No developer has signed on. It's unclear how much the public would have to chip in. And there's already talk of a ballot measure asking voters if they even like the idea.

Most notably for Kings fans, the proposal did not include even a mention of potential sports tenants for the facility, which would be designed to house either a National Basketball Association or National Hockey League franchise.

In fact, the president of the firm pitching the idea to the City Council went out of his way to distance the effort from the Kings.

When asked by reporters if Comcast-Spectacor has had conversations with Kings officials about a move to Virginia Beach, company chief Peter Luukko said, "We are at the point right now when we have not had formal talks."

Pressed by reporters on whether he has had informal talks with the Kings, Luukko responded, "We have not had any talks."

Luukko, however, said he has met with NBA officials to let them know that his firm is pursuing the plan. Luukko said he also has met with NHL officials.

If the plan moves forward, Luukko said, his firm "will commit to pursuing a professional sports franchise."

Meanwhile, Kings officials are on a public relations movement to distance themselves from the effort.

Team sponsors received emails from the Kings last week telling them not to believe the talk of a potential move to Virginia Beach.

It read, in part: "Any information you have heard connecting the Maloofs, the Kings, and the city of Virginia Beach are false and have no validity. The City Council in Virginia Beach and Comcast have both publicly acknowledged that they have not spoken to the Maloofs or anyone from the Kings organization or any NBA officials and rather are in discussions to create a new facility that could accommodate either an NHL or NBA team down the road."

This doesn't mean the Kings' future in Sacramento is stable.

A plan to build an NBA-ready arena in Seattle is progressing, despite some pushback from a few elected officials and the Port of Seattle, which is near the proposed arena site. And in a statement last week, Kings officials said the team "over the last several years has been approached by numerous parties and cities interested in buying and relocating the franchise."

Andy Dolich, a Bay Area sports consultant and former executive with the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, said Virginia Beach is just one of many cities that has expressed interest in luring big league sports. But it's a difficult road, he said.

"If it was easy, everybody would be doing it," he said. "The easiest thing to do in sports to gain tremendous national publicity is to say you are going to buy a franchise or a team is going to relocate to market X.

"Everybody reports on it and it's big news, and then you look back a year later and it was nothing more than a fleeting idea."

Virginia Beach entered the conversation surrounding the Kings' future last week, after media reports surfaced linking the franchise to the city's arena plan. For now, those links appear to be thin.

While some Virginia Beach officials lauded the plan as an economic jolt, others reacted to the idea with a mix of criticism and apathy. Just four of 11 council members commented on the plan at Tuesday's hearing – and two of them had harsh remarks.

Some seem content to keep Virginia Beach the way it is: a town driven by old-time Southern politeness, where profanity is forbidden along the row of souvenir shops and bars on Atlantic Avenue, and where the city's elected officials insist that even complete strangers call them by their first names.

Residents and some city officials also describe the region as a sports vacuum, where the most popular games are those that take place on the beach. There are minor league franchises in the area, but some of those teams struggle to attract large crowds – the nearby Norfolk Tides ranked 36th among minor league baseball teams in attendance in 2011.

"We're a beach town, man," Councilman Bill DeSteph said in an interview Monday night in his kitchen, where outside his four Jet Skis and 32-foot pleasure boat were docked in one of the city's many bays and coves.

A retired naval officer, DeSteph has quickly emerged as one of the arena plan's early critics.

He lambasted population figures presented by city officials that pegged the Virginia Beach area at 3 million residents – the immediate Hampton Roads metropolitan region has 1.7 million people – and he echoed the sentiments of some of his colleagues who expressed reluctance at providing substantial public aid to the project.

"If private industry wants to do it, let them," he said. "If all they want is the land (for the arena), I'll take them out to dinner and buy them a drink."

DeSteph and others describe Virginia Beach as a frugal city. Earlier this year, a plan for the city to help finance a $67 million hotel near the Virginia Beach Convention Center was shot down by the council, and some elected leaders have scoffed at a plan to extend the city's light-rail system.

And, while the region has steadily grown over the years, some wonder whether it's ready to make the leap into major league sports.

"I think the community has changed in recent years and people would like the idea of a team," said Bob Molinaro, a longtime sports columnist for the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. "But as time goes along, it's how do we fill this arena 41 nights a year (for home basketball games)? This is a risk, it's a big maybe, I think, of whether we'd support it or not."

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