Friday, February 4, 2011

The Fat Lady Sings (Again) in Portland

Popular culture holds that an aria by an operatic soprano, Brünnhilda from Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung most typically, can help us determine that, at last and unequivocally, the end is finally here. On December 21, 2010, the proverbial fat lady sang the song that signaled the end of the 21-month long opera that has been the demise, again, of the Portland Beavers baseball club.  That is too bad; Portland has a long history as a baseball town.

I also feel a personal sense of loss.  Unlike most of my ballpark visits, which are one and done, I've seen three games at beautiful PGE Park.  The Portland Beavers were one of the first minor league teams I saw.  They were also the first team Melvin and I wrote about when we started this blog.

The saga, excluding the overture, began on March 11, 2009 when the Portland City Council voted to allocate $31 million to renovate PGE Park for a Major League Soccer franchise, conditioned on the construction of a new ballpark for the 2011 Beavers.  Merritt Paulson is the principal owner of both teams.  The agreement seemed at first to be a win-win.  PGE Park née Multnomah Stadium opened in 1926 with a capacity of 35,000.  The Beavers did not move there until 1956 and the facility was always better suited to "rectangular sports."  (October 1973 photograph above by the USEPA.)  Even at a renovated size of 25,000, PGE Park was too large for Triple-A baseball.  A new smaller home field for the Beavers would feel more intimate and provide a better fan experience.

At the same time, the Portland Timbers soccer team would be elevated from the United Soccer Leagues' First Division to the premier MLS.  I know less about soccer than I do professional rodeo but the sport seems well-liked in the Northwest.  Soccer was reportedly popular when a team also called the Timbers was part of the North American Soccer League in the late-70s, early-80s.  The Seattle Sounders draw well and MLS formally awarded another expansion franchise to Vancouver BC on January 20, 2010, two days before its announcement regarding the Timbers.

However, what sounded good in board room negotiations and municipal and league press releases proved elusive.  The city could not reach consensus on a location for a new baseball stadium.  The first choice, chronologically and by the team ownership, was the site of the Memorial Coliseum (Photograph above by City of Portland).  The 1960 "Glass Palace" designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was the first home of the NBA Portland Trail Blazers.  It now plays host to the Western Hockey League Portland Winterhawks and other events, drawing 450,000 visitors annually (in a city of just under 600,000).  A black granite war memorial is located near the main gate.  Preservationists, veterans and others opposed the demolition or alteration of Memorial Coliseum and made a convincing argument to city hall.

Attention turned to Lents Park, where residents of the neighborhood of the same name opposed taking six or seven acres from the 38-acre recreational facility for a professional baseball stadium.  To minimize the expense to the city, economic development officials proposed using urban renewal funds earmarked for affordable housing and street improvements, an idea that was politically poisonous.  In the end, the City of Portland and the Portland Development Commission looked at twenty-one sites, all of which were unacceptable for one reason or another.  Limited consideration was also given to suburban Beaverton and Clackamas and Vancouver, Washington, all within 15-20 minutes of Portland.

On June 24, 2009, even while the search for a stadium site continued, the Portland City Council voted to allow the Portland Timbers deal to proceed independent of finding a new home for the Beavers.  When Baseball America and the North County (Calif.) Times reported eleven months later that San Diego Padres CEO Jeff Moorad had formed an ownership group, Paulson confirmed the team was for sale.  It took another five months for Moorad to make a deal with Escondido, California for a new stadium; secure a site for the team in Tucson while the permanent stadium is being built; and get the necessary approvals from the Pacific Coast League and Minor League Baseball.  On December 15, 2010 the Escondido City Council voted to issue $50 million in redevelopment bonds for infrastructure improvements and a new ballpark.  Each of these steps brought Brünnhilda out on stage but it was only when Minor League Baseball announced Moorad's purchase, six days later, that the metaphorical fat lady sang the aria that left some in tears.

It's a shame the Beavers are no more.  Although the city was without a team for several periods, and sometimes made do with teams in lower level leagues, there is a strong baseball heritage in Portland.  Professional baseball was first played there in 1890 and continued off-and-on until 1903 when the Portland Webfoots, of the Pacific Northwest League, became the Beavers and a charter member of the Pacific Coast League.  (Above, William Wallace "W.W." McCreadie, briefly a Brooklyn Superba, who owned the team 1905-1921 with his brother Walter, a former congressman representing the state of Washington.)  Until the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moved to California, the Pacific Coast League was the major league west of St. Louis.  Four of the other five cities that joined the PCL in 1903—Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and Seattle—are now home to major league clubs and from time to time there was talk about an MLB expansion franchise for the "City of Roses."

It is also a shame because PGE Park, other than being too large for minor league baseball, is a really sweet stadium.  Ivy grows on both the exterior and left field wall, in front of which is a six-story tall hand-operated scoreboard.  It has a traditional grandstand.  The concourse is wide, with large arched windows on to the neighboring streets.  As a planner, I always appreciated being able to glide up to the park on the TriMet light rail.  Built before "everyone" owned a car, there is no stadium parking lot.

Disappointed Beavers fans searching for solace find it in the fact the team folded financially in 1918 and left twice before, for seven years each time after the 1972 and 1993 seasons, only to return.  And teams in the PCL have been very fluid.  Sacramento may be the last charter member of the league but the inaugural team now plays in Round Rock (Texas) by way of Tacoma, back to Sacramento, Fresno, Sacramento a third time, Salt Lake City, Hollywood, Eugene (Oregon), you know where once again, San Jose, Ogden (Utah) and Edmonton.  In a touching expression of denial, Beavers fan and blogger Tori Ash analyzed stadium ages and recent attendance figures to identify Triple-A teams that might be ripe for a move to Portland.

There is one significant difference this time around.  In the past a relocating franchise had a stadium to return to; the Vaughn Street Park in the first half of the 20th-century (grandstand behind McCreadie, above) and later Multnomah Stadium/PGE Park.  With the conversion of the latter for soccer and football, Portland would have to build a new stadium to bring back baseball.

Ash and others note that Albuquerque bid the Dukes good-bye after 29 years in the PCL when it choose not to upgrade the stadium, then the second oldest in the league and in poor repair.  The city regretted the decision almost immediately and three years (and $25 million) later, the Calgary Cannons relocated there.  The Dukes, by the way, moved to Portland.  When Melvin, my step-brother, his buddy Brad and I saw the Beavers in 2009 (scoreboard above), they were playing the Salt Lake Bees, the team that left Portland in 1993.

Paulson wrote in his farewell on the day before the Beavers' final game, "I predict baseball will return to Portland or the Portland area one day."  That last phrase is key.  The Memorial Coliseum site was by all other measures the best location for a new stadium but it lacked crucial public support.  The city, both the government and the citizens it serves, decided it valued the structure and the events held there more than the baseball team, a choice it had every right to make.  After all was said and done, Paulson stated, "I believe we would have led the league in attendance at that site."

If money was an issue, and it is hard to fault austerity after a $31 million investment in the Timbers, the city would have to find an owner willing to put up more of its own equity for construction and operation.  Writing in The Oregonian, Aaron Fentress concluded, "Paulson's offers were generous compared to the public costs of other minor league stadiums."  [After reading this, a former planner outside of Portland pointed out to me a $38.5 milllion renovation of the stadium in 2001, which she called "the old Civic Center cum PGE Park scandal," is still not paid off.]

There may be a California or Northwest league team in suburban Portland some day, and they may even nostalgically call themselves the Beavers, but the curtain came down on the Portland Beavers on Labor Day, 2010.

Update (November 25, 2011):
As part of Melvin's and my planning for an April 2012 trip to Southern California, I checked the status of the Moorad group's plans to move the Portland Beavers to Econdido, about 30 miles north of San Diego, home of the parent club.  The Triple-A franchise played this year as the Tucson Padres and Melvin, Norton and I saw them on May 1.

A stadium in Escondido may be a casualty of legislation passed by California lawmakers on June 28, 2011.  One bill eliminated redevelopment authorities statewide, taking property tax income from the special districts to help balance the state budget.  Another allowed the state-authorized corporations to remain in business if they make "voluntary" payments to the state.  As noted above, the city planned to construct the stadium and related infrastructure using redevelopment bonds.

The California Redevelopment Association, a trade organization of redevelopment agencies, and the League of California Cities filed suit seeking to have the legislation overturned, claiming it unconstitutional.  The California Supreme Court stayed the legislation on August 11, with a decision on the case due by January 15, 2012, when the first voluntary payments are due.

Bill Center reported in Sign On San Diego, the on-line edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune, that Moorad has extended the deadline for Escondido to commit to building a stadium until the Supreme Court makes its determination.  Moorad had previously stated he will sell the franchise if an agreement is not reached with Escondido or another North County city—San Marcos and Carlsbad were previously considered—by the end of the 2012 minor league season.  Ownership groups in Tucson, El Paso and Vancouver are reportedly interested.  I did not read any mention of a return to Portland.

1 comment:

  1. I know the blog host here is likely still attached to Portland, but the saga with the Beavers has left me feeling completely alienated from Stumptown. I now think of it, to parody the "No Mercy Club" as as "Slackertown, USA", an image bolstered by the recent You-Tube miniseries:


    It is worth noting that about 50 miles away in Keizer, a north suburb of Salem, is a Northwest League team, the Volcanoes. The Volcanoes are a Class A affiliate of the World Champion SF Giants. One can be there in about an hour from the south burbs in Clackamas and Washington Counties.

    Tickets run about $7-20 and every seat has a great view of the game.

    For those of us in Columbia County, we have a West Coast (summer college wood-bat) League team in Longview, Washington called the Cowlitz Black Bears:

    I, for one, not being an NBA fan and downright despinging "Association" Footie-ball, will probably be spending more of my sports entertainment dollars in Washington State for the first since moving to Oregon from a real Baseball town in 1996.

    Between living 25 miles northwest of Portland and the loss of AAA, I just don't consider Portland "home" anymore.