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The Other "Public Option"

Inside a Community-Focused Plan for Memorial Coliseum



HUNDREDS OF PORTLANDERS packed the tiny, chilly seats at Memorial Coliseum on Tuesday, January 26. They had not come to see the Winterhawks, but a high-stakes game of a different sort: presentations of ideas for repurposing the historic building.

Citizens pitched over 100 ideas for the future of Memorial Coliseum, suggesting everything from turning the coliseum into a car museum to installing an entertainment center complete with a fake skydiving ride. This month, a city-appointed citizen advisory committee will decide which top ideas to send along to city council.

The heavyweight contenders in this process are the Trail Blazers, who have teamed up with the Cordish development company and assembled a public relations team to pitch their vision for turning Memorial Coliseum and the Rose Quarter into a 24-hour entertainment district dubbed Jumptown ["Jumpy Road," News, Aug 20, 2009]. Using public and private financial backing, the Blazers' plan would keep the Winterhawks in the coliseum but make major repairs to the building and install a public gym in the bottom level.

Another frontrunner is developer Doug Obletz's idea to turn Memorial Coliseum into a massive public sports facility called the Memorial Athletic and Recreation Center (MARC).

"Can any of these ideas compete with Paul Allen's deep pockets, the Blazers' media machine, and their legal lock on the Rose Quarter? This is an uphill battle," says Obletz.

That doesn't mean Obletz doesn't plan to fight. In Obletz's plan, the coliseum's bowl would be torn out to make room for an Olympic-size swimming pool, ice rink, and 6,500-seat arena to completely fill the coliseum's 3.1-acre site.

The Blazers have special development rights banning new spectator facilities in Memorial Coliseum, so turning Obletz's dreams into reality would require not only serious legal negotiations but also likely a voter-approved bond for an estimated $120 million.

Brian Owendoff, a citizen advisory committee member and former head of high-powered development firm Opus Northwest, says the Blazers' concept and MARC stand out as the most financially feasible projects. Other members of the committee agree.

"The Blazers do have an edge contractually, but I hope the point of this committee is to mix and match some of the best ideas," says another member, Walter Valenta.

"The most exciting suggestions were the ones that could be combined with others," agrees member Carolyn Briggs. "If the Blazers were really moved by the coliseum, wouldn't they have already done something about it?"

Blazers Vice President J. Isaac stresses that his plan for the coliseum would revitalize the area and therefore benefit all Portland. But Isaac also confirms that the Blazers might drop their plan to revamp the entire Rose Quarter if the option chosen for Memorial Coliseum is at odds with their vision, like Obletz's MARC concept.

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