BY RACHEL MONAHAN, NIGEL JAQUISS and AARON MESH
Is Portland a baseball town? Who knows.
Is Portland a town that loves to argue about whether it's ready for Major League Baseball? Hell, that's practically our civic pastime.
In the past two weeks, that debate has erupted afresh, thanks to a bold proposition by a group of local promoters who say Rip City is ready to join the ranks of the Red Sox and the Giants. The group placed bids last month on two potential ballpark sites, one on each side of the Willamette River.
They are a long way from a deal. But the Portland Diamond Project has generated plenty of chatter.
That's partly because Portlanders are excited by the prospect of 81 additional nights of live sporting events. It's been exactly a decade since the last time Portland debated building a new stadium: Then it was a full-scale rehab of the venue now known as Providence Park, which added two major league soccer franchises to the city.
But it's also because the quest for a sports team is a way of measuring our city's status. Have we hit the big time? Are we ready for the big leagues like Seattle, or still second-tier like Boise and Spokane? At the same time, the conversation tests our priorities, forcing us to ask how much public energy and dollars should be dedicated to a game.
Whatever the reason, Portlanders are buzzing. They keep asking the same question: Is this for real?
We're taking the idea seriously. We examine the big questions facing baseball in Portland, identify 11 power brokers who will help decide, reveal the secret stash of cash earmarked for a major league team, and spotlight the locations where a stadium could rise.
Our conclusion? It's a long shot. But as the movies have taught us, baseball is all about dreams. So let's imagine.
We'll start by walking through the many unresolved questions surrounding Portland's baseball ambitions.
I spend my free time drinking kombucha and hiking the Gorge. Why should I care about baseball?
Because it's your money.
A deal to bring Major League Baseball to Portland will reshape the landscape of the city—and depend on capturing scarce public dollars.
A quick refresher on how we got here: Last September, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred mentioned Portland as a possible location for an expansion team. A month later, news surfaced that a group called the Portland Diamond Project was already at work to bring a team to the Rose City—either by moving an existing team here or getting in line for a new team when MLB expands to 32 ball clubs.
The decision whether to sell that public property to baseball investors is the first of many decisions local officials will face about whether to boost a ballpark.
Baseball owners are usually billionaires. So who's in?
The group say it's a roughly $2 billion project: half for the team and half for the stadium. They're looking for $800 million in equity from investors, they say.
At least one of the state's few billionaires—Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle—says he isn't interested. The Portland Diamond Project would probably have to turn to out-of-state investors. The group has remained silent about who those billionaires are.
The silence is creating doubt in Portland that the private money will materialize.
"We are not deterred by any of the skepticism," says Portland Diamond Project president and managing director Craig Cheek. "We know who we're working with and what it's going to take."
If they're looking for mega-rich owners, why does public funding matter?
Major League Baseball won't give us a team without it.
The Portland Diamond Project says it will use existing programs to get that funding. It points to a $150 million tax incentive created by the Oregon Legislature in 2003.
But MLB will want more.
"The average new stadium has been about 60 percent publicly funded over the past two decades," says Andrew Zimbalist, who teaches sports economics at Massachusetts' Smith College.
The Portland Diamond Project has said it won't look for new programs for public subsidies. If they do, however, possibilities include going back to the Legislature to raise the cap set by the 2003 law; increasing the taxes on hotels and car rentals; or creating a urban renewal district or a local improvement district.
Most of all, the league will want to see city and state leaders invest transportation dollars to make sure fans can conveniently get to and from the ballpark. Those may be the easiest dollars to obtain—since they dovetail with existing city priorities.
"MLB wants to be in a city where it is embraced, and it will embrace the city in return," Cheek tells WW. "That means a commitment to the necessary infrastructure and a productive private-public financing partnership."
So does the Portland Diamond Project have the juice to get public funding?
Not based on the team it's fielding today: three Republicans with limited political traction.
The best thing going for them: They've hired two of the right people—Irwin Raij, a New York lawyer who specializes in baseball law (and other professional sports work), and Populous Architects, a Kansas City firm that's similarly the go-to company for ballparks.
But that won't mean much until a political or financial champion surfaces.
Who's on board?
So far, neither the mayor, governor or any legislative leader. Key political interests, including the state's public employee unions, are unlikely to back the diversion of tax dollars to billionaires.
Mayor Ted Wheeler has signaled his lack of support, saying the city has higher priorities, including the housing crisis. The Diamond Project is trying to lure him with the promise that a stadium deal would include 8,000 units of housing.
So far, no dice.
"My focus continues to be on addressing our city's immediate challenges," Wheeler says, "creating more housing, helping those experiencing homelessness, and maintaining a safe livable city."
If we somehow got a team, where would the stadium be located?
To get the public money currently available, the stadium would have to be in Portland.
That's also the national trend: The most successful new stadiums, such as Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, or AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants play, are within walking distance of downtown.
"We always thought the central post office was the perfect site," says John Vosmek, a Portland architect who worked for a decade with an earlier group trying to bring MLB to Portland. "People could walk right down the North Park Blocks to the stadium."
But that's not happening: Prosper Portland bought the 14-acre post office site and has it slated for residential and office development.
What about the two sites in which the Diamond Project has expressed an interest?
They're both intriguing—and flawed.
The Diamond Project covets the Portland Public Schools headquarters site in the Lloyd District, but it will be politically difficult for the school district to sell—and the group leading the restoration of the historically black neighborhood doesn't want MLB there. The other site—the former ESCO Corp. foundry in Northwest Portland—is farther from downtown and would pose a traffic challenge.
But once there's property in hand, the Portland Diamond Project will be significantly closer to snagging a team.
"The obstacles were enormous," says Lynn Lashbrook, who championed previous efforts to bring baseball to Portland. "The landscape of baseball has changed. I don't think there are obstacles once they are successful with the purchase of land."
Critics, however, don't like the idea of allocating precious real estate to baseball. "We would be giving up a huge amount of soil for a use that is pretty nonproductive," says Jody Wiser of Tax Fairness Oregon. "We're talking about taking really important land and letting it sit empty most of the time."
If the Diamond Project succeeds, when's the first pitch?
Not for another four years, at least.
The Diamond Project says it's aiming for 2022. "That would be the earliest—if all the plans align," Cheek tells WW.