Virginia Beach arena project has powerful backers but considerable hurdles

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VIRGINIA BEACH — For all the recent buzz about Virginia Beach absconding with the NBA's Sacramento Kings, Tuesday's build-it-and-maybe-some-team-will-come presentation to the city council was very understated.

No Maloof brothers handing out chips to The Palms casino. No David Stern hotwiring a bulldozer to break ground on the proposed $350-million arena. No fans wearing Mitch Richmond throwback jerseys.

And sagely so.

As the key player in this potential deal, Comcast-Spectacor president Peter Luukko, told the council in chambers and the media afterward: "This is very preliminary."

To say the least, Luukko is wired in the sports and entertainment racket. His company owns the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers and the arena they share with the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers. Through parent and subsidiaries, he is connected to venue management and cable television.

Moreover, Luukko sits on the NHL's Board of Governors and used to serve on the NBA's board. Translation: He has NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NBA chief Stern on speed dial.

"I have met with various officials in the NBA and NHL just to make them aware that this (Virginia Beach arena) may be a possibility," Luukko told reporters.

Luukko declined to offer details but refuted accounts of negotiations with the Kings.

"We're in no discussions with any teams," Luukko insisted to a Sacramento Bee reporter who attended Tuesday's sessions.

Told that The Meridian Group, a marketing and public relations firm retained by the city, had purchased the Internet domains "VBKings" and "VirginiaBeachKings," Luukko smiled wryly.

"PR people," he said, "they're always thinking. Sometimes they think too much."

The Meridian Group's Terry Kelley explained: "We're trying to get out ahead of this thing. We bought a whole bunch of URLs, like any other marketing company would do. … I think you have to look at specific franchises that might be on the move."

Indeed, Joe and Gavin Maloof, the former casino magnates who own the Kings, have been trolling for a sweeter arena deal in Sacramento, Anaheim, Calif., and Seattle. All are established pro sports markets.

Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads most assuredly are not, and Tuesday's ruse du jour came when Warren Harris, the city's director of economic development, included Richmond in the "southeastern Virginia" market.

Richmond? Anyone who's spent five minutes in this region understands it's a stretch to lump Williamsburg, Hampton and Newport News with Virginia Beach, much less Richmond.

Virginia Beach's proposed 18,500-seat arena and Washington, D.C.'s Verizon Center, home to the NBA's Wizards and NHL's Capitals, are equidistant from downtown Richmond. And traveling toward D.C., on Interstate 95 North for an evening Caps game is easier than navigating I-64 East at a similar time.

Councilman Bill DeSteph dismissed Richmond's inclusion in the market numbers and hammered on the arena price tag.

"My question is, Who's going to pay for it?," he said. "And the answer is, we don't know yet."

DeSteph and colleague John Moss adamantly oppose any public funding in this era of squeezed budgets for schools, police and other essentials. Bank on a few citizens sharing their sentiment.

Which prompts another question: Could such an arena prosper without an NBA or NHL tenant?

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