Friday, March 13, 2009

One Crazy Ride, But We Always Win 3 to 2.

3:37 pm, March 11th. History was made in Portland, and it was a long, crazy ass ride.

I have been through emotional rides before, like when I lost my mom or on days at work where the shit is proverbially hitting the fan, but Wednesday was such a different experience. I won't ever forget what happened. But before I get to that, let's start at the beginning of the day.

I had asked for the day off from my job to make sure that I could attend the City Council meeting where the council discussed the proposal to bring MLS to Portland, in addition to discussing a new triple AAA ball park for the Portland Beavers. Talks had problems on the preceding Friday, but apparently, a deal had been struck over the weekend between Sam Adams (current mayor of Portland), Randy Leonard (city commissioner), and Merritt Paulson (current owner of the Timbers and Beavers). The deal was announced on Tuesday, and so the council was going to discuss the plan during their regular Wednesday meeting, starting at 9:30 AM. I went to bed that night after scrambling about to get caught up on work stuff, TV stuff, and helping girl so that she could come to the hearing as well. We went to bed rather late, and as usual, I fell asleep almost immediately after my head hit the pillow, but she had some nervous energy, because it was going to be a big day.

I woke up just before 7 AM, as girl had dropped her mom off at work, because her car was in the shop. She had gotten back, and was going to check email before eating and getting ready to head downtown. I logged onto the board (soccercityusa.com), and was checking on the headlines and topics. The board has been crazy, as members of the Timbers Army were preparing for today, posting links to various media outlets, sharing letters that they'd written to various people, and posted comments from people who either supported or hated the idea of MLS. As I sat down, girl had mentioned that they were asking for someone to read a letter from our friend Gary from Seaham. He had written a wonderful story about his first trip to Portland, the hospitality that he was shown, and how much he enjoyed the passion that the Timbers Army showed during matches. I originally wasn't going to testify, but when the opportunity presented itself, I didn't hesitate to say I would read it. Gary is a wonderful friend of mine, and he's done a lot for me personally after two trips across the pond, so I felt honored that it would be me sharing his words. After putting out the trash, showering and eating, we left the house at 8 AM. We wanted to be in the chambers by 8:45 AM so that we could sign me up to talk.

The traffic wasn't terrible for a Wednesday morning, but the drive into downtown didn't make me miss commuting into the core of Portland one bit. I love the people that jump lane to lane, or are doing other things while driving, but it's what you see in the morning, so it is what it is. We pulled into 4th street about 8:40 AM, and found a parking garage near City Hall, the site of the hearing. I figured we would be in and out within a few hours, as the council meeting was supposed to start at 9:30 AM with the vote happening around 11 AM. But I also remember my days of being in student senate at Gonzaga, and meetings almost invariably never followed the right schedule, as they often went long or ended way early. While I hoped that it would end early, I wasn't that optimistic about that happening. As we pulled into the garage, I took the ticket and pulled into the first floor and got ready to park, when girl said, "No, wrong spot, it's 106. Go one more over!", and sure enough spot 107 was open, so we parked there. I firmly believe in karma, so hey, anything I could do to help the cause, let's do it. I even pulled out my match day scarf to wear with my green shirt, so that I followed the color scheme of the TA. As we walked down to City Hall, we saw the Tri-Met number 10 to Sunderland, letting people off. Again, perhaps another sign, as I was ready to read a letter from a Sunderland AFC supporter to our city council in support of MLS.

We passed through security at 8:50 AM, and walked upstairs to see the semi-large group of Timbers Army already waiting to get into the council chambers. There was at least 50 people gathered outside, waiting for the 9 AM time to sign up and I ran into many of my friends, and a few Army members that I hadn't met yet but knew me and girl by face. Finn, our main TA organizer for MLS to PDX, made sure I was Ok to read the speech, and Obi even offered me a SAFC scarf to wear while reading Gary's letter, but I decided to stick with my match day TA scarf. It made me feel comfortable, and so as I wandered up to sign up, I felt ready and calm to go. I'd already been talking with various city council members by email to provide input about the decision, answer any questions they might have about MLS, and do what I could to provide information about Paulson's idea. The chambers opened up soon after 9 AM, and we saw Merritt walking in, and he stood outside, shook a few hands and thanked us for being there. After the bonding moment, many of us started to head in. There was already a half dozen news cameras there, following us in and taking pictures before things got rolling. The lower floor of the chambers was filled with TA, so many that they had to open the balcony for more seating. I don't think anyone expected this many people, as evident by many of the council meeting regulars who were used to getting close up seating. Today would be a little different.

At 9:35ish the Councilors and Mayor Adams wandered in, and things officially got going. The first hour was going through the agenda items before soccer, including two calls for Adams to resign, a prayer from a pastor, and the Palau foundation giving the city money. It was rather interesting to hear the discussion about various things, and the business was handled rather respectfully. I did find it funny that most of the people asking for Adams to resign didn't appear to be Portland residents, but at any event, around 10:30, the topic of MLS started up. Being a former college senator, I was used to the parlimentary rules of procedure, so following along was pretty easy. First, the task force chairman talked....and talked...and talked...and got grilled with some questions. I noticed a few people typing into their computers, and apparently, Oregon Live sent one of their columnists to follow along. Ryan White did a great job of following along, and honestly, I'm not sure I could have done such a good job keeping up and making it sound interesting.

The city attorneys came up, and talked more about the nuts and bolts, and got questioned more, as Commissioners Fish and Fritz were asking most of the questions. The deal had been brokered by Commissioner Leonard and Mayor Adams, who fielded and clarified things, but the attorneys and PDC guys talked for nearly another hour, until Merritt took the stand around noon time. By now, my stomach was still in knots as I'd expected to have been gone by now, but at the rate we were going, it looked to be a very long day. I even got my picture taken by the Oregonian with girl sitting next to me, I believe it was taken about 11 AM or so, about the point that I had wished I had eaten more than a bowl of cereal. The discussion continued, and there were many questions thrown out, some good and some not so good. Fritz indicated she hadn't seen the documentation until today, although if that was truly the case, she grasped some of the text pretty well. There was plenty of talk about seating, the ballpark, transportation credits, urban renewal districts, zero coupon bonds, and more finance talk than I'd heard since my college days. Needless to say, lots of details were discussed at great length.

Around 11:55 AM after Merritt left the microphone, Multnomah County Commissioner Ted Wheeler took the stand, and the next 45 minutes or so was punctuated as "the Leonard - Wheeler" bitch fest. I'd never seen anything like it, as Wheeler and Leonard took shots at each other verbally about urban renewal districts. Wheeler didn't want one formed because it would affect the county budget adversely, although Leonard pointed out that not only does the county have many now that they earn from, but that he'd mentioned to Wheeler 3 months ago this was part of the plan. Apparently, that fact didn't register until the thing became a back and forth trading of barbs, with a final "oh, snap" moment where Leonard basically said Wheeler didn't know what he was talking about, followed by Wheeler's "uh, your mom" retort. It was truly a spectacle to follow, but the events here did have an affect on things later. Wheeler was joined by someone from the Portland Public Schools, who said this proposal would hurt their budget, too, so please don't do it.

It's not that I have anything against schools mind you, but it seems like the PPS always has their hand out if they can get more money, and sure enough, it appeared they were upset that an urban renewal district would be put in around PGE Park that could adversely affect them. URDs allow an area to set up a taxable district, in which bonds can be issued. However, these bonds can affect the amount available for other public entities, such as schools, if they wish to either set up bonds, and they can impact the taxable values of properties in the area, which affects the amount they collect from the states and counties. In most cases, the bonds and other public financing work in conjunction with each other, but apparently, the county and PPS felt otherwise, and so it was their time to say their peace. Once this was done, more task force dudes came up and said their peace. It was interesting that the task force had unanimously agreed on the recommendation, and one of the guys admitted he was a no until that final meeting.

The public testimony finally got rolling just before 1 PM. Short statements good, but you have 3 minutes to talk and then you get cut off anyway. Most of the other council business has been pushed to other days and meetings, so at this point, we're in for the long haul. Most of the speakers have good things to say about MLS, including the president of the Oregon Sports Authority, some veterans who were happy at the prospect of getting a new memorial, and lots of Timbers Army, while many spoke against it, including a guy that felt the Coliseum made more money with cat shows than baseball, and a city employee that thought it was a waste of time. There was another veteran who said they were supposed to get use of the Memorial Coliseum, but apparently no one remembered this fact. He didn't seem to mind it possibly being torn down, especially at getting a new memorial.

At 1:25 pm, my name gets called, and I'm up there with two other TA, Kari Sue and Obi. It's Obi's fault that I joined the TA, so it was fitting that we were up there to testify at the same time. My part went rather well, I didn't butcher the letter too bad, and by 1:33 PM, I was done. The letter was from the heart, and while I missed some of the words, it was an honor to read it. Even the mayor liked the story, and within a few more minutes, I was back at my seat. I never felt such a thrill as actually standing up for something I believed in.

But my optimism was short lived as at 2:13 pm, the Portland Trail Blazers testified, and said the MLS deal, specifically the baseball part, harms them. Up until now, they'd been a willing participant, realizing that another tenant might bring more folks to the Rose Garden, an area that has really struggled to pull people there on non-game nights. While the Blazers had been supportive, they suddenly said that their idea for an entertainment district near there would be harmed by the baseball park, and it would cause them economic harm. I'm not sure what loud sound I heard first, Merritt's jaw dropping at the change of heart, or Adams and Leonard sitting dumbfounded at the situation. Even the local sports columnist, John Canzano, was disheartened at the conduct, and wrote about it at great length today. It's one thing if you were disrupting an already established area, but in the 15 years since the RG was built, it's still what it is, two arenas, some random office buildings and a restaurant. While baseball would fill in crowds on non-basketball nights, I think the problem here is as simple as asking this - Do the Blazers want competition in their market? Or Do the Blazers want competition in their market for revenue streams that they currently have a monopoly on? The Trail Blazers guy leaves hurriedly, and the room is still stunned at what just happened.

The testimony continues, Merritt goes back up to talk more, more legal stuff gets talked about, and around 3 Pm, they decide to see if they even want to vote today. When suddenly, Commissioner Saltzman proposes an amendment to remove the URD part of the financing, and the piece that the county was complaining about is discussed and gone. The amount of the financing is $15 million and so it will need to come from somewhere, either another source or a URD that the county and schools can agree upon, but either way, it needs to be in place by September 1st, when this agreement officially becomes binding after a vote. It appears that with this one change, perhaps we might get a vote and it will finally pass. It appears that Fish is leaning towards a yes, Saltzman and Fritz are no's, while Leonard and Adams are already committed yes votes. We hit 3:20 and then it's time for final remarks.

Fritz pulls out some soccer scarves, talking about being a huge soccer fan, and loving the game. She continues on about soccer, when her tone changes about not wanting to hurt the city or the Trail Blazers, and after a rambling roundabout speech, she said she can't support it, and so the first no vote is on the book. Fish steps up, saying he'd be the first in line to buy MLS season tickets, but he can't support the idea of harming county services, and so he's a no. I'm shocked by this one, because I thought he was a yes. The Army sits huddled in their chairs, realizing that our fate hangs by one final vote. If it's a yes, we are in, if not, the MLS dream is done. Saltzman starts to talk about financial terms, and not harming the city, but soon says "This seems like a good stadium deal for us and I look forward to discussing it more, so I'll vote yes"

The room explodes into a crazed celebration of cheers and tears. Girl cried in her seat, I sat there stunned and humbled while tearing up, and there was plenty of noise. Leonard and Adams soon cast their yes votes with short discussion, and soon enough, the deal is passed 3 to 2. There's still the 15 million dollar question, but we can go to MLS with the deal and go from there. It's now a matter of MLS saying yes to Portland. I shook Merritt's hand later, got to speak with Sam Adams a bit, and generally hugged and celebrated with the TA around there. It was a truly great moment, and one of historic proportions. I had truly seen the city at work, and while we got what we wanted, it wasn't without challenges.

We live in a society that doesn't believe in sharing truth anymore, but rather placing doubt on ideas as much as possible because information can be skewed in many different ways. I don't want schools to be harmed, or the Trail Blazers to suffer monetarily, but at the same point, if schools can't find ways to more efficiently use their funds, why should they get more. And seriously, as much as I love the Trail Blazers, they seriously upset a lot of fans with their antics on Wednesday, and while I'll support the team, I have issues with the business end. But as we ended up at the Bitter End celebrating, none of that mattered. We all celebrated because for one night, we convinced a city that soccer was a good thing, and we got three powerful people to believe in it's future in Portland. And when Merritt came into the pub later to celebrate and buy drinks for everyone, it showed exactly what kind of a guy he is - one that loves Portland and wants to see this happen.

I did send thank you notes to the council, to Ryan for his humour, and to the Trail Blazers, and while I was cordial in every one of them, I won't forget the lessons learned on this journey. There's a lot more work to be done, but at least for now, we have achieved something that just a few months ago seemed like a pipe dream. And I will remember this day when I'm sitting in PGE Park in 2011 as the Timbers open up their MLS campaign, and realize just how far this city has come in such a short time.

2 comments:

Randy Leonard said...

Thank you for this excellent personal account of the MLS vote. It is good to get another perspective from the one I had from my side of the room.

I continue to work with the MLS Commissioner and Merritt to put Portland in the best position possible to get the nod for the next expansion team.

Keep your fingers crossed.

GK said...

Mr. Leonard -

On behalf of myself and the members of the TA, we very much appreciate all that you have done for the MLS effort up to now, and for the continued efforts that will come. I know that you realize this is a special opportunity for Portland, and so keep up the good work. You know you have a large group of us that are willing to do what we can to help.

Bring MLS to Portland!!

-GK