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Portland bid needs one vote
by Ridge Mahoney, March 11th, 2009 7AM
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[MLS] A league that has been beaten over the head dozens of times at the ballot box, city council meetings, and legislative sessions is perhaps one vote away from adding another Northwest city to its lineup. The five-member Portland City Council votes Wednesday on a proposed agreement between potential MLS operator-investor Merritt Paulson, who owns the USL-1 Timbers soccer team and minor-league baseball Beavers, and the city to renovate PG&E Park, currently the Beavers' home, into a first-class soccer facility and build a new baseball park downtown near where the NBA Trailblazers play.

If the City Council approves the plan, an announcement from MLS should be forthcoming naming Vancouver and Portland as its two expansion teams for 2011. If not, the league may - as league spokesman Dan Courtemanche implied several days ago - name Vancouver next week and hold off on a second team.

In MLS boardrooms, Vancouver - backed by billionaire Greg Kerfoot and NBA star Steve Nash - has always been the expansion frontrunner, though various media reports erroneously cited Montreal and Miami, which have since been eliminated, as the league's top picks. The league has approved a plan by which a Vancouver MLS team would play at B.C. Place until a proposed waterfront stadium project emerges from a political morass.

Many months ago, Vancouver also topped the Soccer America list of expansion candidates, not by personal preference, per se, but rather interpretation of comments by Commissioner Don Garber and other league executives as well as very favorable indicators regarding the market and prospective ownership group. Once Seattle gained traction in the fall of 2007 as team No. 15, efforts intensified to create an MLS rivalry in the Northwest.

Adding Portland also would ratchet up that regional intensity. Concerns about political backing, the multiple baseball issues, and whether PG&E Park could be successfully converted into a soccer facility impaired the Portland bid, but Commissioner Garber and league president Mark Abbott have made several trips to the Rose City in the past year as conditions improved.

Yet Paulson and MLS can count on only two votes, those of Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Randy Leonard. They hammered out the agreement after more than a year of wrangling and negotiations that nearly blew up last Thursday during a heated meeting that reportedly infuriated Paulson, who hadn't endeared himself to city officials by insisting he'd pay $40 million for the MLS team but another $85 million to renovate PG&E and build a baseball park had to come from other sources.

Under the tentative agreement, Paulson would have access to more than $60 million in city-backed loans for the two projects. He is obligated to make rent payments on the loans and has agreed to a 7 percent surcharge on tickets that will help retire the debt even if revenues don't match projections.
Leonard played a key role in moving the projects forward by introducing a plan to build a baseball park in the Rose Quarter rather than a suburban location, as had been discussed. The move offered access to city funds for both projects, not just the soccer component.

Commissioners Nick Fish, Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman will swing the decision, and all have expressed concerns regarding using city money during a severe economic crisis that is taxing the city's resources for basic services. Just one of their three votes is needed for the plan to go forward.

The stadium projects would cost $88.8 million: $33.7 million to renovate PGE Park and $55.1 million to build a baseball park in the Rose Quarter. The Memorial Coliseum, the Trailblazers' home until they moved to the Rose Garden in 1995, would probably be demolished to make room for the Beavers' new home. The renovated PG&E would have a capacity of 20,000 for soccer and would also be made available for community events.  

Paulson has agreed to pay 20 percent and guarantee the other 80 percent. His share is more than $23 million. The city would borrow $31 million against the Spectator Facilities Fund, and pay another $15 million through property taxes on a new urban renewal area that is being developed. The Oregon Convention Center would kick in $18.5 million of its $26 million surplus. Under the formulas proposed, Paulson has guaranteed repayment of all public monies and loans even if the team and/or league go bust.

"I think we have a deal in principle, but we don't have anything until we've got a third vote," Paulson said to The Oregonian newspaper. "I'm very optimistic we'll get three if not four votes. But nothing is over until it's over."

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