Staff report says visitor facilities could stay closed for business until COVID-19 vaccine is widely distributed.

COURTESY: OREGON CONVENTION CENTER - The Oregon Convention Center is one of the venues operated by Metro which may not open until July 2021.

The arts and entertainment venues operated by Metro may not open for business until July 2021 or even later because of the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a staggering financial problem for the elected regional government and a continuing drain on the economy.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure the venues can open as smoothly as possible as soon as they can. They are vital for the economy of the region. We just don't know when that is. These are unprcedented times," said Metro President Lynn Peterson.

The grim news was presented to a joint meeting of the Metro Council and the Metropolitan Exposition Recreation Commission, or MERC, on Sept. 3. They authorized the commission staff to explore financial options if the facilities might not reopen for another two years or even longer. The alternatives are scheduled to be presented to the council in October.

"We likely can't have large gatherings until there is a vaccine that is widely distributed, and that could take two years," MERC Finance Manager Rachael Lembo told the joint meeting.

The venues include the Oregon Convention Center, the city's five performing arts facilities known as the Portland'5 Centers for the Arts (Portland'5), and Portland Expo Center. Along with the Oregon Zoo, the venues stimulated more than $875 million in direct and indirect regional spending, which supports more than 8,000 total jobs per year before they closed on March 13 after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown limited indoor gatherings to slow the spread of the virus.

According to a report prepared and presented by Lembo, in late May the venues projected outcomes based on three scenarios. Those were based on reopening in October 2020, reopening in January 2021, and reopening in June 2021. At the time, reopening in October 2020 seemed most likely.

But now, Lembo said, reopening in June 2021 may be most likely — unless it takes even longer to develop and distribute a vaccine to end the pandemic.

The financial fallout already has been devastating to Metro's budget. Before they closed, the venues were expected to generate more than $56 million for the fiscal year that ends on July 31. That estimate now has been reduced to $37 million. Metro has received $4 million in COVID-19 relief for the venues from the state and city, which is not nearly enough to offset the losses.

Even though venue staff have been furloughed, expenses at all venues are continuing. For example, Lembo's report said it costs an average of $250,000 per month to maintain the Portland Expo Center. It will be out of operating funds by this November. The Portland'5 costs $170,000 per month to maintain and will be out of funds by May 2021. And the Oregon Convention Center cost $940,000 per month to maintain and will be out of funds by June 2022.

According to Lembo, MERC is working with the remaining staff at the venue to figure out how to cut costs and increase revenues as much as possible. In the meantime, Metro is moving forward on potentially redeveloping the Portland Expo Center, which consists of several large exhibition halls and support facilities near the Columbia River next to North Marine Drive. The council declared the potential redevelopment of the 53-acre property a priority in September 2019 after research showed that the popularity of its primary purpose — hosting consumer shows — is declining. The aging facilities also will need investments in the future.

The council created the Portland Expo Center Development Opportunity Study to identify financially self-sustaining models that meet the greatest public benefit, and to identify resources for much-needed capital improvements. The Cascadia Partners consulting firm has been retained to lead the process with a focus on fiscally prudent opportunities that are informed by value-based guiding principles adopted by Metro, informed by communities with historical and cultural associations with region and property. Stakeholders include African America residents adversely impacted by redevelopment in North and Northeast Portland, the Japanese American community interned at the Portland Assembly Center after Pearl Harbor, and the Indigenous People who originally lived there.

Up to 12 future scenarios are scheduled to be developed by October that will be narrowed to five by January 2021, when a virtual open house will be held on them. The finalized five scenarios are scheduled to be presented to the Metro Council by February 2021.

More information on the Portland Expo Center project can be found here.

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