Play ball, Portland!
Some good people have made some really good attempts at bringing major league baseball to Portland through the years.
In the 1960s, the Delta Dome bond measure failed by a few thousand votes, or Portland would have an NFL franchise, and likely a major-league team, too.
In 2003, a David Kahn-led Oregon Stadium Campaign helped push through House Bill 3606, which applied state income tax from player and executive salaries toward $150 million dedicated to a new stadium. The Portland group was trying to lure the Montreal Expos, who wound up moving to Washington, D.C.
Since 2001, Lynn Lashbrook — bless his soul — has made drumming up support for a stadium a personal crusade, the latest idea an all-wooden structure featuring Northwest timber products on the site of the old Vaughn Street Ballpark.
All well and good. Since the house bill was passed 15 years ago, I've believed major league baseball in the city could happen.
Now, as the Portland Diamond Project swings into gear, I truly believe it will.
The timing is right. The people involved are right.
The ownership, I'm told, is on board, though the identify of those in the investment group will remain private for now.
The management group (PDP) includes retired Nike vice president Craig Cheek and former Oregon state senator Jason Atkinson, a pair of heavy hitters with connections to help in the political and legal realms. Cheek attended the winter major league baseball meetings in Orlando.
Former Trail Blazers broadcaster Mike Barrett, a respected and trusted name in the community, adds credibility as another managing partner.
This trio has been working behind the scenes for some time, positioning Portland for an opportunity get an MLB team through either relocation or expansion. The group met with Rob Manfred in New York City last September, a week before the commissioner identified Portland as on the list for potential expansion cities.
With a strong group of investors — including a pair of majority owners who live out of state — the private portion will generate the majority of capital necessary to fund a stadium project that will exceed $1 billion. The $150 million from the 2003 house bill would be an important piece as well.
The management team does not intend to ask the city or state legislature to create funding through bond measures or tax increases, though there might be financial benefits arranged through zoning changes or funding from urban renewal districts.
Keep in mind, there will be additional cost to buy the club, whether it comes via expansion or relocation. The price tag on that could be another $1 billion. I'm told the majority owners are equipped to handle those costs.
Expansion is going to happen, because MLB wants to go to a balanced 32 teams — 16 in each league, with realignment through eight four-team divisions.
Before that, Manfred hopes to stabilize the weakest existing franchises — the Oakland A's and the Tampa Bay Rays, both hampered by poor stadiums and weak attendance bases.
In February, Tampa Bay announced a new stadium site, but must come up with some $700 million to complete the proposed project.
Tampa Bay ranks 23rd in the major leagues in average attendance so far this season at 17,202 in Tropicana Field. A recent three-game homestand versus Texas averaged 8,997. A year ago, the Rays were last in the league with a 15,670 average.
For years, the A's have been trying to replace decrepit Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the worst place in the major leagues to watch a game.
Oakland is last in average attendance this season (14,353) after finishing 29th a year ago.
Average for a four-game series with Texas in early April: 8,653.
The A's are getting desperate. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of their franchise, they staged a "free game" Tuesday night, drawing a crowd of 46,028. It was the first free game in major league history. On Wednesday, the MLB office announced it would not count the game toward its attendance figures. The night before, announced attendance at Oakland was 7,479.
It's possible that one, perhaps both of those franchises will relocate in the next couple of years. That, coupled with expansion possibilities, opens up the potential for something monumental in our city.
Since 1902, only a dozen franchises have relocated to a new city, the last being Montreal to Washington. The last time expansion teams were added was 1998, when the Rays joined the American League and the Arizona Diamondbacks became part of the National League.
"It's a unique time in history," Barrett says. "Major league baseball doesn't relocate, and they hardly ever expand. They're going to 32 teams at some point. Two new teams are coming. Relocation is a possibility. We will never see a time like this any time soon. It's a unique time to strike, a one-in-four opportunity."
Architects — one firm in Kansas City, another in Portland — are working to design a 32,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof. That figure seems low — I'd go for the 40,000 range — but I understand PDP's thinking.
Monolith baseball stadiums, such as Cleveland Municipal Stadium (78,000), Philadelphia Veterans Stadium (62,000) or the old Yankee Stadium (80,000), are no longer in vogue. The largest current capacity is 56,000 at Dodger Stadium. The smallest is Tropicana at 31,042.
Most of the current parks hold between 40,000 and 50,000. Oakland's baseball capacity is 48,592 (it's 53,250 for the Raiders, serving as the only NFL/MLB stadium remaining). Seattle's Safeco Field is listed at 47,715. The latest to be built, SunTrust Park in Atlanta, can seat 41,084.
MLB teams don't want half-empty stadiums. That said, you want to build big enough to take care of your fan base. Barrett says capacity of a Portland ballpark could be pushed to 36,000 for major series or postseason games.
If I were calling the shots, I'd forgo the retractable roof, which will add about $250 million to the project and make the stadium footprint significantly larger. Rainouts would mostly be a problem in April. After that, Portland weather is as good as in most cities in the U.S. through early October. If necessary, I'd use FieldTurf rather than natural grass, which would help contend with any inclement weather.
PDP has made offers to buy two pieces of land for the purpose of building the stadium.
One potential site is where the former Esco Corporation plant was located on Northwest 25th Avenue and Vaughn Street, with about 25 acres of property (the foundry is closed, but Esco's executive offices are still located there). The other site is the Portland Public Schools' Blanchard Education Services Center, located north of Northeast Broadway near Moda Center, a piece of land that is about 19 acres.
This doesn't mean PDP is tied into these two sites. They are looking at other properties in the metro area. I'm hoping, though, that they can make it work on one of the two in-city sites. The locations would make it accessible to the vast majority of fans in the metro area.
There is no time line for all of this to happen. It takes 2 1/2 to three years to get a stadium of this magnitude built. I'd guess we're looking at a three-to-five-year window for things to happen, but nobody can say for sure.
More than ever, though, I'm convinced it's going to happen.
I can't wait for Opening Day.