Friday, April 17, 2009

The Rules of An Institution

I remember the days of growing up in Boise, Idaho, a sleepy hamlet in the southern part of the Treasury Valley. It was a big city, or at least what I thought was a big city for the time, because we had just topped 100,000 people when I was in the 7th grade. Mind you, this was from a town that at that point had no mall, no professional sports teams, and was trying to find an identity outside of being the capital of a state that most people didn't know a whole lot about. I remember spending a bit of time at the A and W Root Beer restaurant on the corner of Fairview and Curtis, because the food was pretty good, they still had the carhops that would deliver the food to your car, and the floats gave you the bestest sugar buzz until I discovered Pixie Stixs. The place was always busy, because while the food wasn't anything special, it was the place to hang out and be seen, or at least get your snack buzz on. I remember a lot of good times, eating in the car with my family, and I wished the times would never end. As I've traveled back there from time to time, I see the old corner that now has a mini mart or something, and it makes me sad to see an institution of my youth tossed aside like that, but I also realize that times have changed.

It's something that we in Portland are facing with the eminent closure of GI Joe's, a popular sporting goods chain in the area, and the potential loss of the Memorial Coliseum for a proposed baseball park. I've lived in Portland long enough to have eaten at Rose's in Beaverton and Quality Pie when they were still open, I've had sundaes at Farrell's, and saw shows at the old Pine Street Theatre before it faded into the sunset, I used to eat burgers at the Red Coach, skated in Pioneer Square the winter they put a rink in downtown, and saw Ramblin' Rod during many Twilight Parades. I may not have grown up here, but I understand Portland institutions quite a bit, and realize that GI Joe's and the Memorial Coliseum are two of our most long standing ones.

I remember a trip that my family and I made to Long Beach, Washington when I was 13, and we rented an RV and drove from Idaho to the coast. I remember being told that Portland was a huge place, so be quiet while we drove through it. It's funny to look back at the same roads we drove on that time, and realize that while Portland is a really big city, it's also pretty well signed and it's really difficult to get lost in most parts of it. During our stay in Portland, we spent quite a bit of time out in Beaverton at the mall, and that was my first encounter with GI Joe's. I'd never seen anything like it, a mish mash of sporting goods, camping, hunting, surplus gear, electronics, automotive stuff, and other things in one place. And it was packed with people, buying various things. I'd seen sporting goods stores in Idaho, but nothing like this, and I realized that this place seemed pretty special and different. I saw clerks taking care of people, answering questions, a ton of Trail Blazers gear, not realizing that I was in a Portland institution.

When I moved here in 1989 after college, one of the first places I stopped at was the GI Joe's in Beaverton to get some supplies and check on concert tickets. It was still bustling, and it didn't seem like much had changed. Over the years, I bought various things there, but I also began to notice in the late 90's that the store was changing. I saw less and less of people interacting with clerks in the rows, asking about hiking trails or the fishing gear to use, and the stock in the place was different, with more high end equipment and less of the things I remember, like surplus stuff, boats and such. The few times I did check there for automotive things, they never seemed to have anything in stock, and it often seemed like a ghost town in shopping there. I even felt a bit of sadness when GI Joe's just became Joe's because the new owners felt that the name would be more welcoming.

What they failed to realize is that the first rule of institutions is change might be necessary, but don't stray too much from what brings people here in the first place. Joe's put a lot more effort into higher end sporting goods, clothing, camping equipment, and spent less time and energy on the things that brought in clientele in the first place. I heard less and less people talk about going to Joe's unless there was a sale, or something that they knew would be in stock there. By reaching out and trying to capture another market, Joe's abandoned part of the loyal customers that visited often, and people stopped visiting. I also encountered employees that knew less about the things they were selling that I did, which meant getting any type of advice from them was useless. If you want to buy outdoor things, you want to speak to people that know their stuff. While I'm sad to see the institution go away, I'm surprised it had lasted as long as it did with the new changes. I realize retail is a fickle business, but the one thing about Portland is they are loyal to places, and if you keep giving them what they want, they will go there always.

The Memorial Coliseum, however, is part of the second rule of institutions, and that rule is that sometimes you have to realize when it's time for an institution to fade away. Loyalty will get you so far, but it's important to keep up with the times without altering your core. The MC was the site of my very first Trail Blazers game in 1989 versus Denver, and I went to 3 Winterhawks games that year, and found the MC to be small, intimate, and cozy. The place rocked when the crowd was into the game, and it was awesome to see the banners of the past glory of the teams. Since then, I've attended various games there, a few concerts, and even spent two summers rollerblading on the concourse, so I feel I know the building rather well, and it seems like that in the past 20 years, they've not done much to the MC at all.

The interior roof and acoustic tiles look water damaged, the seats in some sections feel worn out or appear broken, the concourses are hard to move around in with a full house, and some of the nooks and crannies show off old plumbing and bathrooms that need some serious TLC. It became more apparent that the building was getting old when the Rose Garden opened in 1995, and had the serious bells and whistles of modern arenas, with great sight lines, big scoreboards, and concessions everywhere. It was no comparison in the experience, and after a while, I stopped going to the MC because it just wasn't a fun place to watch games. They've recently updated the scoreboard within the past year, but the arena seems old and tired. Especially if you find the veterans memorial, which is needed some love. Granted, the memorial hasn't been updated since the 60's, so while the veterans have remembrance there, it's only the old war Veterans that get recognition.

One of the ideas for getting a baseball park for the Portland Beavers so that PGE Park can be fitted for soccer is to tear down the MC and build a park there, with an improved memorial and other things. It's been 15 years since the Rose Garden was built, and even after it was finished, there were talks to change the MC into retail space, a community center, a park, a refurbished arena, yet to this day, none of that has been ever completed, and the arena is now falling into further disrepair. But since the idea has been floated to tear it down, people in the are have been clamoring to try and save the old relic, saying it's a historic place and should be preserved.

I am angry at the city for not doing more to keep the building up over the years, because it could be in very good shape with some regular maintenance and upkeep, but instead, the RG got a lot of the attention and the MC became the forgotten arena. It still serves many events, and I would hate to see it go away because it's actually an interesting looking building. But I have to ask myself: am I wanting to keep it because of the memories only, or is there a purpose that this building still fulfills? And honestly, the Rose Garden is a much better arena in so many ways, and can fill most of those purposes rather well. Knowing that the city is paying $500,000 each year to keep this building running at a very minimal level, it makes me realize that as a city, we could be investing those funds into something that helps the city more, which is bringing baseball to the Rose Quarter, and filling more dates and events in a season when basketball and hockey aren't around.

Seriously, the Rose Quarter is a ghost town when the Blazers aren't playing or there is a major concert about. The area was touted as an entertainment mecca when it was first built, but it's failed to live up to those dreams simply because there is little to do outside of go to the RG when you are there. Putting baseball in with other shops and arenas would make the area a destination point, which is what you want to build to attract people to come, and not just sports fans. As much as I like the MC, I don't want its continued existence to be the reason why the Beavers are still playing in PGE Park in 5 years, and MLS decides to go elsewhere because we can't get our stadium needs figured out.

I've posted links below to various articles about the topic: - An opinion piece about PGE. - Discussion about URDs and a plan that will help stadium financing. - Calls to keep the MC as is. - Accelerated time frame squashes debate? - The MLS soccer coverage home on the Oregonian. They've done some decent pieces in there, but the slant of most of the articles lately have been taking bits of information and distorting them a bit to give the anti-soccer crowd something to use against proponents of the plan. I get that a lot of media now doesn't spend time showing both sides of a story, they print what will antagonize or irritate readers into buying papers and continuing to read, so why not put stories out about a plan to build a stadium that will bankrupt the city, which is full of potholes, teachers that are getting laid off, and social issues piling up all over. Honestly, I realize the city has challenges going on, and I don't want to make light of anything they are facing, but seriously, the benefits here outweigh the risks, and doing this could likely help the struggling tax base and job front.

But what both stories have shown me is that people are passionate about institutions, and they are a tough thing to let go of, even if it's the right thing to do. They invoke memories, feelings, and make people feel comfortable, and that's a good thing to have those thoughts because it means you've invested something in being there and spending time and money at a certain place. But sometimes we need to remember that new things aren't necessarily bad, and you can form new memories quite easily. It's just tough to say goodbye to something that means that much, but sometimes that's the only choice.

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