Memorial Coliseum (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Imagine if Portland hosted the nation's biggest regular-season college basketball tournament, one featuring the top programs in America. Imagine the return of the US Figure Skating Championships, or the Dew Sports tour, or Davis Cup tennis. These are the very real bookings for Memorial Coliseum, and can generate enough economic activity to more than pay for its restoration. And don't listen to me say it: Listen to the experts.
Last week, Portland's City Council began the process of voting on a $31.5 million renovation plan for Memorial Coliseum. The plan would tap $10 million in donations from the Winterhawks hockey team and pair it with $17.1 in Portland Development Commision funding and $4.4 million in loans.
Although I was one of the people testifying last week in favor of the Coliseum restoration (on behalf of the Friends of Memorial Coliseum and supporting partners like the American Institute of Architects, the Cascadia chapter of the US Green Building Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation), I'd like to share here some of the other people's testimony. For while City Council invited public testimony from anyone in the community, not a single person spoke last week against the restoration, but countless community leaders came to argue for the building.
Tom Welter, executive director of the Oregon School Activities Association, which administers all school sports tournaments in the state, was one of those giving testimony.
"We conduct 116 state championships each year. We use Memorial Coliseum as much as the Rose Festival," said Welter. "Our first tournament was in 1966 and this is the 47th consecutive year. For our wrestling tournaments, we have 160 of our high schools come into Portland. But currently our basketball tournaments are not held there because the scoreboard doesn’t work. For the vast majority, it’s the pinnacle of their athletic career. We want to provide the best venue and experience possible. Right now we’re using the Rose Garden. We can’t afford to be there much longer, because we don’t draw the crowds. We’re very interested in moving that event to the Coliseum."
Welter's testimony was important because it helps articulate the model for a two-arena configuration such as we have with the Coliseum and the Rose Quarter. The Coliseum is our place for amateur athletics, for college graduations and community activities in addition to minor-leage Winterhawks hockey, while the Rose Garden is where our top pro team, the Trail Blazers, play and where top concert tours touch down.
But it's the two-arena configuration's ability to host large events in both arenas at once that gives the Coliseum added econonomic value.
Speaking of which, next came Drew Mahalic, CEO of the Oregon Sports Authority.
"It can be a catalyst for much-needed economic development," he told City Council. "The renovation of the Coliseum can place Portland in a class by itself. We’ll be the only city anywhere with two first-rate arenas just a few feet apart that can give us advantages to get events that nobody else can get. It gives us a chance to get back the US Figure Skating Championships, to get back the Dew Tour."
"In just a few years - this one excites me so much - we are going to be able to host the greatest in season basketball tournament of all time," Mahalic added, "with 24 teams coming to Portland - Kentucky, Duke, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida - to celebrate Phil Knight’s 80th birthday. That can’t happen without a renovated Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The economic impact from that event alone will exceed $31 million, which is the amount we’re talking about for the restoration. This can give our city a competitive advantage. It can bring us economic impact multiple times the renovation. It’s really what we’ve been waiting for, and I would encourage you to favorably consider it."
For those who question the Coliseum's architectural value despite its listing on the National Register of Historic Places, consider the economic support for the building offered by Carly Riter of the Portland Business Alliance.
"A lot of painstaking and detailed work has gone into this proposal," Riter told City Council. "The result is a collaborative deal that works, that lays the groundwork for future partnerships, and provides real community benefit for the neighborhood, the city, and the region. This project is exactly the kind of investment that urban renewal was designed to provide, and produces the short and long term benefits that epitomize the role of urban renewal."
"Second, this development will catalyze this area and spur economic investment in the broader Rose Quarter area," Riter added. "This project will provide certainty for other investors that the city is a dedicated partner in revitalizing this neighborhood. Third, it creates a local and regional benefit by offering a viable entertainment facility for the Portland Winterhawks and other events. This attracts new energy to the area, enlivening it with civic and economic activity. Having the city and the PDC involved in this project and poised to assist with future development opportunities in this area will support additional strategic investment."
Ronald Carr addressed Mayor Adams and Council on behalf of local veterans.
"We are veterans and we know what it means to serve…as well as the sacrifices made by our families back home," Carr said. "We remember every person who gave a sacrifice…in America we value the life of every human being, and this is a driving force in everything we do as veterans. We leave no one behind and we remember. Forever, we remember."
"Throughout our history, we’ve heard many battle cries: Remember the Maine. Remember the Alamo. Remember Pearl Harbor, and remember 9/11," Carr added. "It’s not just that we want to remember. It’s also that we need to remember. We need to help other people in other generations remember by sharing these stories, memories and traditions with our children and grandchildren. This is why the Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Memorial Gardens are so important to our community and society. It comes down to something as simple as this: we want and need to remember, but it is extremely important to never forget."
Finally, Jeff Curtis of the Portland Rose Festival Foundation spoke. "This is the home of our largest event and a significant one. It’s part of our history," he told the Council. "Back in 1961, the Rose Festival was one of the stakeholders that was part of a conversation to get the building constructed. We were one of the first events in that facility. The facility designed its doors in parallel fashion specifically to be the home of the Grand Floral Parade. So there’s a lot of historical and emotional ties to our beloved Grand Floral Parade. There’s an economic value to the Rose Festival, and the building is a big factor in our Grand Floral Parade and our operating budget. But it also provides an opportunity for tour groups, seniors, who don’t want to go out on the streets. It’s the only parade venue in the United States that’s indoors. That’s a competitive advantage in the special events and tourism market."
Finally, Fred Leeson, president of the Architectural Heritage Center (and a contributor to this blog) addressed Council.
"I read through the ordinances yesterday online, and I noticed all the references to the economic risk," Leeson began. "I just wanted remind some of you who probably were not here in the 1970s, when I was a newspaper reporter for the Oregon Journal and covering the Exposition and Recreation Commission, which then managed the Coliseum, is that the Coliseum gave up literally millions of dollars from its revenue to subsidize Civic Stadium and Civic Auditorium. In so in a sense, in supporting the Coliseum now, we’re making good on a past debt."
City Council is tentatively set to vote next week on the Coliseum restoration. The coalition of public and private sector stakeholders making this project happen is a fragile one: the announcement recently of major sanctions against the Winterhawks by the Western Hockey League sent some around City Hall wondering if it would force the team to back out of the deal. So far that hasn't happened, and Mayor Adams spoke personnally with the team's owner recently, receiving a renewed expression of support for the Coliseum restoration. The incoming City Council set to take office next year may also want to weigh in. But for now, with a little luck, the saving of this great building may be within reach.