VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — The Virginia Beach oceanfront in the wintertime often resembles a ghost town, where the big crowds and bright lights of the summer tourist season have long since been replaced by closed restaurants, empty sidewalks and a string of dimly lit neon hotel vacancy signs.
But city leaders say they have a solution to transform the city's resort area into a year-round destination: Make it the home of an NBA team.
"It would be a game changer," Mayor Will Sessoms said.
On Tuesday, the city council will vote whether to move forward on a deal with Philadelphia based sports and entertainment company Comcast-Spectacor to try to lure a franchise to town by building a $300 million, 18,500 seat arena on city-owned land about eight blocks from the ocean. A final vote would come in February or March.
Officials in Virginia's largest city imagine a series of trolley cars zipping along the oceanfront picking up ticketholders from bars, restaurants and hotels to bring them to the game, while others could walk from nearby parking lots or an entertainment center that has been on the drawing board for years. The proposal would finally give the sprawling city of roughly 430,000 people a central hub of activity and help fill thousands of empty hotel rooms on game nights and after concerts. The idea is so intriguing to local businesses that the Virginia Beach Hotel-Motel Association voted to support hiking the city's hotel tax to help pay for the arena's construction at a time the tourism industry is starting to make a comeback.
While no specific team has been mentioned, a likely target for relocation would be the Sacramento Kings, which failed to reach a deal to build a new arena there this spring. The Kings nearly moved to Anaheim, Calif. last year before Sacramento's mayor was given one last chance by the NBA to come up with an arena deal. There have been no substantive arena negotiations between the team and the city since then, and a public relations firm hired by Virginia Beach has secured the domain names for virginiabeachkings.com and vbkings.com.
Comcast-Spectacor President Peter Luukko signed a confidentiality agreement preventing him from saying which team he's negotiating to bring to Virginia Beach, but he noted that these opportunities don't come up very often. He should know, because his company owns the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers and once owned the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers.
The proposal to bring an NBA team to Virginia Beach has plenty of critics, including members of the City Council who question whether the area has the population or the income level to support a pro team. The region has a long history of failed efforts to land NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball franchises.
Moving a team from Sacramento to Virginia Beach would mean moving it from the country's 20th largest media market to its 44th, according to Nielsen company. But arena backers note that because Virginia doesn't have another professional sports team, the Virginia Beach designated market area could be combined with Richmond's to make it the 21st largest just behind Sacramento for the purpose of televising games and broadcast rights.
For the first two years while the arena would be built the team could also play some games in Richmond.
Generating support for the arena and the team outside of Virginia Beach is crucial to any deal to build an arena. The deal the city will vote on Tuesday would require state funding. Without it, city officials have said the deal would be dead. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell supports bringing a pro sports franchise to the region, but he didn't include any funding for it in his 2013 budget proposal. However, that could change during the legislative session. The city has asked for $150 million from the state, with $70 million going toward construction of the arena and $80 million toward the franchise's relocation costs.
In an effort to help earn state lawmakers' support, Virginia Beach paid for an economic study that says an NBA team would support about 3,700 jobs in Virginia and that the state government would receive nearly $11 million in tax revenue each year. The proposed deal with Comcast-Spectacor calls for an NBA or NHL team signing a 25-year lease with the company taking care of the arena's annual operating costs, as well as chipping in $35 million for arena construction. The city would pay the rest.
Under the proposal being considered Tuesday, Comcast-Spectacor would lease and operate the arena for 25 years. No arena would be built without a pro sports team's commitment to relocating.
For NBA fans like Chris O'Brien, a 25-year-old Chesapeake resident who started a Bring the Sacramento Kings to Virginia Beach Facebook page and Twitter account, the timing seems right.
"People that say that we can't do it or that this area just can't handle it, I think that's kind of old-fashioned thinking. You've got to spend money to make money, is what they say," he said.
On Tuesday, O'Brien will find out if the city agrees with him.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis