|Lents Field visualization|
There's a longish list of public-backed sports arena proposals around the Northwest we've thought might be fine ideas as private facilities, not so good as business ventures essentially backed by the taxpayers. So the first reaction here, when Merritt Paulson (owner of the Portland Beavers and Timbers and - should this be a red flag? - the son of former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson) proposed a partnership with the city to turn downtown Portland's PGE park into a major league soccer field, was skepticism.
We'd have to say at this point it remains a difficult call, and the hard time that three of the five Portland council members had with it seems entirely reasonable. The 3-2 vote was indicative of how close a call this could be.
Mayor Sam Adams and Council member Randy Leonard, and others around town not least including the Oregonian, have been on a hard push for the project. (Of the three other council members, only Dan Saltzman joined Leonard and the mayor to push it through.) The O's editorial arguing in favor pointed out that Seattle and Vancouver (B.C.) appear likely to have major league soccer teams, as part of a sport that seems to be expanding, and Portland could benefit from being part of that - "If the Portland city commissioners say goodbye to this deal, in effect, they'll be consigning Portland, nationally, to the nosebleed seats."
Such arguments sound wonderful if there's enough private support in town for the entertainment facility, but why should non-soccer fans be on the hook? Well, the advocates make a better-than-usual case for that. Some of that relates to an infusion of money and jobs at a time those things are much needed. The area around the PGE field could use a little rehab, and a fresh major league operation might do that; there is some urban development and geographic logic to this. (Paulson also has agreed to fork over directly a substantial chunk of the implementation costs; much of the rest would be made up through ticket and other fees.) But it also centers around the city's very limited liability: "In the unlikely event that Major League Soccer foundered, Paulson and his family company would make payments on the city's loans. Not only are they willing to backstop the deal, they're willing to absorb a hefty dose of cost overruns," says the Oregonian. Sounds almost as if what the city is really being asked to do is not a lot more than acting as a low-risk co-signer.
That's not quite all, of course. Willamette Week has a series of countering points, noting for example that many of the financial projections for the project come from Paulson's court - not from an independent city review - and that several other cities have dropped out of the race for major league soccer. Several of those are points worth more serious address.
This will take a while to get done, if something else doesn't slow or stop the process. It bears a close look. Albeit, a hopeful one.