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Hall Monitor

Easy Street for Tom Hughes



THE AURA OF INEVITABILITY, when pushing a proposal both controversial and complex, can be a powerful piece of political magic—a boon to its wielder and a pox upon those who dare speak up in opposition.

And right now, as he makes his rounds pitching a breathtakingly complicated deal for a publicly subsidized Oregon Convention Center hotel, that aura of assuredness is perhaps the biggest ace tucked up Metro President Tom Hughes' sleeve.

After months of extremely touchy negotiations, Hughes finally got his own government on board with the deal—essentially a promise to sell millions in bonds financing part of a giant new Hyatt hotel, on the idea that all the new convention business a hotel might bring would more than pay that debt back.

And as part of those talks, Hughes worked through some back-channel assumptions about what the two other governments helping to swing the deal—Portland and Multnomah County—might also pony up.

Portland, for example, is being asked to throw in $4 million in urban renewal money—receiving, for its assent, some extra tourism money. The county, in return for its blessing, also would get to wet its beak with a little bit of new tourism cash.

The understanding that emerged from those talks was clear: City and county commissioners might not like everything. But if you don't hold your nose, if you pick too many things apart, the whole thing will topple like a Jenga stack.

And while legitimately huge questions still hover over the deal's promises—questions that could give officials some purchase in calling for a better deal—even those are complicated. The group pushing them hardest is suspiciously made up of rival hoteliers quietly afraid of the Hyatt deal, because of a labor agreement that might force them to pay their own workers more.

This is all to say: This week, when Hughes watches the Portland City Council and Multnomah County Board of Commissioners finally take up their part of the bargain at back-to-back hearings, he likely won't be breaking a sweat.

The county board has already indicated it has three votes for the deal—and that was before Marissa Madrigal, who helped former Chair Jeff Cogen negotiate the thing, was sworn in as interim chair.

City sources also tell me there's likely three votes—with potentially skeptical commissioners, like Nick Fish, debating how substantial any proposed amendments ought to be.

For now, the only commissioner still firmly opposed is Steve Novick. He's sensitive to the labor issue. But he can't overlook the notion of subsidizing a private business with public cash. He'd be for it, he says, if Hyatt was more accountable if things went wrong.

"I'd like to see if we can get a better deal," he says.  

It's a reasonable request. But he's been told it's too substantial this late in the game. That strikes him as silly. Knowing it needed the okay from three governments, he wonders, wouldn't Hyatt have privately counted on some pushback?

Maybe. Or maybe they figured no one would be foolhardy enough to stand in front of an oncoming train.

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