Just as City Hall prepares to kick the giant glass box that is Veterans Memorial Coliseum down the road, three local men are shopping an audacious plan to turn the cavernous building into the Northwest’s answer to Hollywood.
Sports marketer Rob Cornilles, multimedia producer Tim Lawrence and Hollywood vet Kirk Iverson want to turn the sleepy, city-owned Coliseum into a multimedia production facility that would capitalize on Portland’s reservoir of underemployed creatives, the building’s location and its architecture.
Cornilles, who lost as the Republican challenger to U.S. Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) in the 2010 election, says he’s long viewed the moribund Coliseum as an opportunity.
Iverson was an assistant to producers on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and worked on several other Hollywood productions before taking a senior position at Wieden+Kennedy. He says Portland boasts a wealth of production talent—such as Lawrence, whose Digital Works Productions is currently making a feature film for Warner brothers about Sudanese runner Lopez Lomong—and far lower costs than Los Angeles.
The partners have been quietly shopping their idea locally, both to elected officials and business leaders.
Ty Kovatch, chief of staff to City Commissioner Randy Leonard, says the pitch is “intriguing.” Kovatch says his boss likes the idea but sees two sticking points: making the financial plan viable and ensuring the minor-league Portland Winterhawks have a home for hockey, if not in the Coliseum then in the Rose Garden.
“It’s likely to be a nonstarter if the Winterhawks can’t be kept whole,” Kovatch says.
Another sports franchise with a possible trump card is the Portland Trail Blazers, who operate the Coliseum and have an option to continue doing so until 2023—unless the city wants to convert it to a new use.
“That’s the city’s call,” says Blazers Senior Vice President J. Isaac. “They can do what they want with the building.”
Mayor Sam Adams likes expanding Portland’s production capacity but says there are better and cheaper locations in the city.
“Right idea, wrong site,” Adams says.
Cornilles disagrees and says he and his partners will be pushing to build support.
“We admit that we’re late to the party, but it’s time to put more refreshment in the punch bowl and light this thing up again,” Cornilles says. “I’ve been disappointed that we can’t find a long-term sustainable use for the Coliseum that will drive some job creation.”
Adams shares Cornilles’ frustration. Last year he convened a Rose Quarter development task force in hopes the group would add more than what Adams called “several unsuccessful attempts in 17 years” to breathe life into the neighborhood.
That impulse followed Portland Timbers and Beavers owner Merritt Paulson’s idea to raze the Coliseum and build a minor-league baseball stadium. Adams’ task force reviewed nearly 100 ideas—including developer Doug Obletz’s community gym and the Blazers’ Jump Town—but in the end, none gained traction.
This month, the Portland Development Commission voted to sink $20 million into renovations at the Coliseum, which preserves the status quo but little more.
Since the Portland Trail Blazers moved next door to the Rose Garden in 1995, the Coliseum has been home to the Winterhawks, events and meetings. According to the Coliseum’s audited financials, the building lost $343,000 last year.
Cornilles and his partners say the absence of internal walls and the fact that only four pillars support the building make it attractive for building sets and special effects. The lofty roof, highway accessibility, proximity to Portland International Airport and the Northwest’s surrounding beauty all make it a prime location, they say.
Iverson’s team says the cost of converting the Coliseum into a production facility with office and educational space is about $80 million. Based on previous Coliseum studies, he says about $30 million in tax credits could be available.
After consulting a Los Angeles investment bank, Iverson says he thinks private investors would provide the remaining $50 million—if the state and city were willing to provide incentives to get the plan off the ground.
“We’ve got the right players, and the facility is ripe for retrofit,” Cornilles says.
But for now, Adams says he’s content to stick with what he’s got—a revived Winterhawks franchise that rode its new owners’ greater resources deep into the Western Hockey League playoffs this year.
Adams’ lack of enthusiasm is perhaps understandable. He’s spent much of the past 20 years watching plans for the Rose Quarter fail.
“Everybody has come forward with plans for sure-fire winners that will make everybody a lot of money,” Adams says.
City Council is scheduled to vote on Memorial Coliseum renovations June 22.