Oklahoma City leaders scored a big league victory Tuesday night as voters overwhelmingly supported a proposal to upgrade the Ford Center in hopes of landing an NBA franchise. "We really are creating a city where people want to be, and this is a golden age in Oklahoma City,” Mayor Mick Cornett said. "I think someday we will look back and people will realize it.” With all precincts reporting, 44,849 voters, or 61.9 percent, approved the proposal compared with 27,564, or 38.1 percent. The decision extends a 1-cent sales tax, which is currently paying for MAPS for Kids. The tax was set to expire at midnight Dec. 31, but will extend through June 2010, raising about $121 million. About $20 million will pay for a new NBA practice facility. The rest goes toward improvements at the Ford Center. Cornett declared victory about 8:30 p.m., nearly an hour before the vote was final, to thunderous applause and cheers at a watch party thrown by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber at Nonna's in Bricktown. The chamber put on a "Big League City” campaign to support the proposal. Voter turnout was 30.8 percent, about double the average for a city election and higher than the 2001 MAPS for Kids election, which had 25 percent turnout. Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, said the chamber's campaign paid off. "It looks like voters are responding very positively that this is the right thing for us to do — to be a big league city,” Williams said. Improvements at the arena will include decorative floors and walls, new bathrooms and concession areas, restaurants, suites, a family fun zone, NBA locker rooms and offices and a host of other renovations.
Setting the stage ‘for something bigger'With Oklahoma City voters giving their approval, the next vote will be in the hands of NBA owners, who are scheduled to meet April 17-18 to vote on a request by the Seattle SuperSonics' owners to relocate to Oklahoma City. Clay Bennett, an Oklahoma City businessman who leads the Sonics ownership group, thanked city leaders and citizens Tuesday night. "Congratulations to Mayor Cornett and the City Council for their visionary leadership,” Bennett said. "Thanks to the Oklahoma City chamber and the business community for their unwavering support and guidance. Above all, we are grateful to the citizens of Oklahoma City for their continued commitment to excellence.” The team is leaving Seattle because the city and the state, Washington, has refused to publicly finance a new arena. The SuperSonics still face hurdles in leaving Seattle. The city has sued to force the Sonics to honor their KeyArena lease, which extends through 2010. NBA Commissioner David Stern has said the team leaving Seattle is an "inevitability.” Oklahoma City officials have touted the potential relocation of an NBA team to Oklahoma City as an economic development tool that will help move the city forward as it competes regionally with big cities. "It sets the stage for potentially something bigger,” Cornett said, referencing the likely arrival of an NBA team. "We've done what we need to do to continue to impress that NBA relocation committee.” If the NBA does not locate a team here, the sales tax will last through Dec. 31, 2009, raising about $100 million for Ford Center improvements. The practice facility would not be built. Cornett has also promoted the improvements as a way to keep the Ford Center competitive with newer arenas when vying for events. "I'm thrilled that the voters believe in the future of Oklahoma City,” Cornett said. "This assures that we're going to be competitive in getting Big 12 events and NCAA events, concerts and conventions. The improvements are going to be fabulous. I can't wait for the people to see them.” Cornett said it's tough to gauge whether the biggest moment in the city's sports history was Tuesday's election results or the arrival of the Hornets. He said the two situations are different because the Hornets represented a sporting achievement while Tuesday's election had more to do with the city's future. "The city's momentum was on the line with this,” Cornett said, admitting that the city took a gamble holding the single-issue Ford Center election so soon after December's bond issue election. The next lap in the city's race for an NBA team comes later this month, when a committee of NBA owners charged with evaluating whether cities without NBA teams are prepared to have one visits Oklahoma City. That visit has city leaders preparing for yet another campaign. "But this one is not a communitywide campaign,” Williams said. "We know the audience. This is a small audience, but it still will be a lot of work.” The committee will then report to the NBA's Board of Governors, made up of a representative from each ownership group in the league. That board will have the final say on the Sonics' request to relocate to Oklahoma City. Williams is among the leaders who will pitch the city to the owners when they arrive. The Big League City campaign spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in its advertising campaign. The intent was to get as many voters to the polls as possible. "We didn't want a small segment of the community to make this decision,” Williams said. "We wanted the whole community to make this decision, so we had to be very aggressive.” Contributing: Staff Writers Berry Tramel and Michael Kimball
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Lorraine Lovelace, left, and Jill Redo-Joseph react Tuesday to election results. Lovelace is a Ford Center employee, while Redo-Joseph was a season ticket holder for both seasons the Hornets played in Oklahoma City. BY NATE BILLINGS, THE OKLAHOMAN