MLB stadium? Just build it
There was some news about the Portland Diamond Project on Monday, with the announcement that the group working to bring major league baseball to Portland has signed a "labor harmony" agreement with the Oregon AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions.
That means future employees at a new ballpark — concessions, program and retail sales, tickets, parking, security and other jobs — would be union-authorized. All well and good.
But what about the question baseball fans of the Portland area and state of Oregon really want answered?
Where does Portland's bid for a franchise — through either re-location or expansion — stand? When will we get an indication from the exalted Rob Manfred?
The MLB commissioner, unfortunately, remains silent on the issue. Manfred has mentioned Portland in the past as being on his short list of cities that Major League Baseball is looking at. He has met at least twice with PDP representatives. But there are no assurances that the City of Roses will have major league baseball in the near future. Glaciers move more quickly, it would seem, than MLB.
PDP officials, meanwhile, continue to work quietly behind the scenes more than two years after the organization's formation. They have majority ownership — albeit silent partners to date, regrettably — lined up along with significant minority investors, including Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife/singer, Ciara, and former big-league infielder Darwin Barney from Southridge High and Oregon State.
PDP has identified a preferred site, Terminal 2 along the south side of the Willamette River near the Pearl District, and has an extended land option with the site's owner, the Port of Portland.
There is another site, however, the PDP folks are taking a serious look at — Lloyd Center.
The historic shopping center, located in Northeast Portland just a stone's throw away from the Rose Quarter, was purchased for $148 million in 2013 by Cypress Equities Real Estate Investment Management of Dallas. Cypress Equities is in the latter stages of a $100 million redevelopment project.
But Lloyd Center, as with most malls throughout the country, is not doing well financially. And despite the remodel, the ownership group is open to a purchase of the property, which covers 1.5 million square feet of retail, restaurant and office space and boasts 17,000 parking spaces.
While Lloyd Center isn't as romantic a location as Terminal 2 on the waterfront, it may be more practical. If my math is correct, the Lloyd Center site computes to about 34 1/2 acres — not as large as Terminal 2, which is close to 50 acres, but big enough for a 32,000-seat ballpark. PDP reps, covering all the bases, are still negotiating with owners at the adjacent Terminal 1, which combined with Terminal 2 would bolster the waterfront property to 88 acres.
PDP would lease Terminal 2 from the Port of Portland, but could gain outright ownership of Terminal 1. That would be the case, too, with Lloyd Center, a major piece of land in the heart of the city with much of the necessary infrastructure already in place.
Either site works for me. What I'd love to see is the PDP's anonymous principal owners — who are said to have more than enough monetary wherewithal — come out of the closet and announce they are going ahead with the privately financed project, with or without a promise from MLB.
Before you pronounce me ready for the loony bin, let me say I understand that a primary tenant is critical to the financial success of any athletic venue. But, according to PDP plans, the ballpark project would be a large-scale mixed-use development, including restaurants, bars, retail outlets and housing, all of which could provide a major economic boost to the city.
I just visited SunTrust Park, the new home of the Atlanta Braves. It has pumped life into the adjacent "Battery Atlanta" area, with an estimated net fiscal impact of $18.9 million annually.
With a stadium in place, Portland would be an even more attractive spot for MLB. Relocation could be immediate. It might put some pressure on Manfred in terms of expansion.
"We're building" news would inject momentum into a drive that has a lot of folks in these parts wondering if it will ever happen.
It would be welcomed by owners of other MLB clubs, who could use it for leverage for future stadium deals — or perhaps be a landing spot for one of them.
The move has worked before. Tampa built Tropicana Field (then the Florida Suncoast Dome) in 1990 with the purpose of luring a major league team. Five years later, a franchise was awarded, with the Rays (then Devil Rays) beginning play in 1998.
In the NBA, Oklahoma City built Chesapeake Energy Arena (then Ford Center) in 2002. That paid off when the Pelicans moved in for two seasons (from 2005-07) after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. And that provided the impetus for the NBA moving the Seattle SuperSonics to OKC in 2008.
There are examples the other way.
San Antonio hoped to get an NFL team when it opened the Alamodome in 1993. The Spurs wound up playing nine seasons there, and there are plenty of events on the calendar, including the annual Alamo Bowl — but no NFL team.
What is now called the Sprint Center was built in Kansas City in 2007 with the hopes of an NBA or NHL team. So far, no go.
All of the aforementioned facilities are either publicly owned or financed through a public/private partnership. That won't happen in Portland, where a majority of both citizens and politicians don't want tax funds used for a new ballpark.
It would be on PDP and its proposed ownership group to make a leap of faith, banking that MLB would soon be on its way. Once it happened, the club could get a boost from $150 million in players' income tax revenue by way of a 2003 Senate Bill for ballpark financing.
I'm not sure if relocation or expansion is Portland's best bet. The Rays, who rank 29th among MLB's 30 teams with an average attendance of 15,602, have been unsuccessful in procuring funds to build a new stadium. Team owner Stuart Sternberg has gone so far as to propose splitting home games between Montreal and Tampa Bay beginning in 2024, when the lease with Tropicana Field expires.
The Oakland A's, 26th in attendance with a 19,205 average, have MLB's worst stadium and no private financing for their proposed new 35,000-seat stadium at Howard Terminal — which, by the way, is an active shipping port and would get major opposition from unions in the Bay Area. It still makes sense that the A's could look northward in a franchise move.
Manfred has stated publicly that he wants to stabilize stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa before he looks at expansion. I'm not sure what his time frame is. Seems as if he's in no hurry at all.
I do know there's a groundswell of interest from baseball fans in this area to get an MLB club here before those of us in the 50-plus age category are six feet under.
So I'm hoping PDP's heavy hitters will take a big swing and give us a slice of that fabled line from one of baseball's greatest films, "Field of Dreams."
Build it, and they will come.
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