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On Your MARC?

A proposal to convert the Coliseum into a giant gym picks up speed.

Just months after being put on life support, a proposal to convert the Memorial Coliseum into the nation's largest single-structure sports center suddenly was revived last week, thanks to an emissary from Pill Hill and a creative financing scheme.

Oregon Health & Science University benefactor Mary Wilcox told Mayor Vera Katz that if such a complex were built, the university might be interested in leasing 40,000 square feet of space to set up a state-of-the-art fitness-medicine facility.

It's not clear whether Wilcox, the wife of aluminum tycoon Brett Wilcox and co-chair of OHSU's Center for Women's Health, has the blessing of university administrators. But even her tentative interest gave hope to those who want to convert the Coliseum into the Mother of All Gyms.

As home to countless cyclists, kayakers and climbers, not to mention Nike, Adidas and Columbia Sportswear, the Portland area has long been viewed as a kingdom of fitness, lacking only a crown jewel.

The campaign to convert the Coliseum into the Memorial Athletic Recreation Complex has been around since the fall of 2001 but has only recently begun to seem a practical possibility.

The city-owned Coliseum has posed a problem for public officials ever since the Trail Blazers abandoned it for the Rose Garden in 1995. Floundering under management by Paul Allen's Oregon Arena Corporation, the 43-year-old sports facility has struggled to find a niche, playing host to everything from Junior Hockey to Ralph Nader to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

When city officials began asking what the space could be used for, the concept of the MARC was born.

Advocates, led by Doug Obletz of the Portland development firm Shiels Obletz Johnsen, proposed gutting the 350,000-square-foot glass box and using the unobstructed interior to house a competition-quality Olympic-size swimming pool, an NHL regulation-sized ice rink, several soccer fields, multiple basketball and volleyball courts, and a 50-foot climbing wall. Some even talked about tapping the adjoining Willamette River to create a rapids simulator for kayaking and rafting.

"In Portland, if you're in the upper 10 percent you get access to the Multnomah Athletic Club," Obletz says. "If you're in the bottom 10 percent, you have the Boys and Girls Club. But if you're in the middle, you don't have access to high-quality facilities." The MARC, he says, would fill that gap, while attracting athletic competitions at all levels.

The flaw in this ambitious vision: the price tag. At a projected cost of around $100 million, the crown jewel seemed in danger of disappearing into a political pawn shop, as Katz looked for something that would bring in tax dollars, not require them.

This summer, Katz floated the idea of bringing Home Depot or some other "big box" retailer to the Coliseum. When that proposal fell flat, MARC backers stepped up their efforts.

The theoretical OHSU facility would include three components: a "wellness" center offering analysis and treatment options ranging from yoga to chiropractic, a sports-medical outpost offering diagnosis and treatment for sports-related injuries, and a sports medicine research facility.

OHSU's possible interest surfaced at a brainstorming session Katz convened last week with Wilcox and high-level representatives from Nike, Columbia and Oregon Arena Corp. Also present was City Commissioner Erik Sten, who's floated the idea of designating the area around the Coliseum a tax-increment district.

Such a move would allow the city to finance MARC's construction costs by borrowing against the expected boom in local property value, instead of raising property taxes or implementing high user fees.

"There are not enough public funds these days for a project like this, and the voters can't afford it," Sten says. "But if you do it with a tax increment district with no impact on the voters, then I think most people would be for it."

Sten sees the MARC as the hub around which a rejuvenated Rose District can be built. It could even include the mayor's coveted big-box retailer. "The stretch of Broadway from the freeway is the most blighted prime retail district in the region," he says. "This would bring a day-to-day reason for the average Portlander to head down there."