It’s been nearly two years since the Portland Diamond Project first started hatching its plan to bring pro baseball to Portland, and the movement is starting to pick up steam.
The celebrity duo of Russell Wilson and Ciara are on board as early investors, a tentative agreement is in place to bring a 32,000-seat ballpark to industrial Northwest Portland, and more than 35,000 fans are signed up as “ambassadors” of the MLB-to-Portland campaign.
I talked with Portland Diamond Project president Craig Cheek earlier this month about the progress his team has made and the challenges ahead. Here are some highlights from that conversation, edited lightly for brevity and clarity:
I suspect John Oliver made your job harder with his segment about sports stadiums that left taxpayers footing the bill. What have you learned from those projects, and how will this be different?
Craig Cheek: I can’t emphasize partnership and collaboration enough, because if it feels like it’s being railroaded through, you’re not going to get people engaged.
That’s why we went into this saying it’s going to be mostly privately financed. The days of cities financing 70, 80, 90 percent of the ballpark are kind of over.
We’re putting in an enormous amount of capital, but I do think it’s important for a city to have some skin in the game. There’s a $150 million tax bond already on the books in Oregon — we’d like to tap into that. And any project of this magnitude has a certain amount of infrastructure required. That would be a considerable and meaningful partnership.
It seems like the Terminal 2 site has a greater need for infrastructure, especially transit infrastructure, than other potential sites. How confident do you feel that Terminal 2 is where you’ll end up?
We continue to believe that the Terminal 2 site has so much potential. You’re on the waterfront in Portland. The accessibility to the Willamette would be unbelievable.
I think that if a ballpark and a development went there, it would be voted the most picturesque, best-fan-experience ballpark in all of Major League Baseball.
Now does it have some challenges? Absolutely. And we’re in the belly of the beast right now discovering all the potential challenges to really get this one over the top. But it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Some people want our city’s basketball team to be renamed the Oregon Trail Blazers. Could you envision putting Oregon in the team’s name instead of Portland?
Actually, we’re staying open to that. We’ve debated it vigorously within our own camp.
Portland has so much cachet and so much energy — it’s kind of the tip of the spear for the state, so we’re probably leaning in that direction. But we remain open.
As long as you don’t name the team the Beavers. (Editor’s note: Go Ducks.)
Well, of all the team names from Portland’s past, the Beavers is overwhelmingly the most popular.
The two other historic names that really break through are the Pioneers, because that was one of the original Portland teams, and then of course the Mavericks. That was such a renegade, distinctive, quirky team, and it just feels like Portland.
You’ve talked a lot about the importance of listening to the community as you design this project. What will that look like in practice?
We don’t pretend to have all the best ideas figured out. We need people’s help — and there’s nothing better than personal connection in small gatherings and forums to really engage in a conversation.
We want to ask people: “What are your hopes and dreams for a project like this? What are your concerns? What are your ideas?”
You just have to keep communicating and finding more and more people who have a passion around a certain part of the project, and that’s when I think it really works.
When you look at other cities that have built new ballparks recently, what’s a model for how to make it successful?
Oracle Park in San Francisco is a privately financed ballpark that’s one of the most picturesque in baseball — and just think about the partnership required with the city and the county.
They went on the waterfront, which is not easy to do. They had infrastructure they needed to look at. They had to answer how people would get in and out of there, and how that Mission Rock area would evolve. And it’s turned, turned into something absolutely spectacular down there in the Bay Area, so I love that example.
Aside from a stadium, you also need to bring a franchise to Portland — either through relocation or expansion. What are you doing to show Major League Baseball that Portland is ready for a team?
The petition has been fantastic. We just thought, “hey, can we get 50,000 people to sign up and say ‘we want this to happen’”? We’re already past 35,000, so that’ll make a big statement to Major League Baseball that fans here are excited about this.
We’re also telling the story of Portland being a sports town. It’s amazing that Nike’s world headquarters is here, Adidas has its North American headquarters here, Under Armour has set up shop. The commissioner can’t go anywhere else in North America and get that kind of concentrated focus with the three largest athletic brands.
But the league also wants to know that the city has skin in the game, so preserving that tax bond is important, and staying committed and open to infrastructure innovation and a partnership there is important as well.