Memorial Coliseum is about more than Architectural Preservation

I understand if you're fatigued by the Memorial Coliseum story. Perhaps you're one of the many who think it's an ugly, obsolete behemoth that threatens to stifle progress and waste taxpayer dollars. In the end, this post isn't about that story, though it was triggered by it. It's really about who's running the show in this goddamned town, and who's reporting the story.

The front page of Monday’s Oregonian was splashed with two beautiful photographs of Memorial Coliseum (exterior and interior), accompanying a hatchet job of a story about the building’s financial viability. A smidgeon of snideness crept into a headline that read, “Save Portland’s Memorial Coliseum, but for what?”

The O’s editorial position has been staunchly anti-Coliseum from the get-go, parroting the talking points of the proponents of its demolition, and implying that the only folks who want to preserve the building are a few elitist architects with their heads up their asses. On Monday morning, that editorial posture crept onto the front page--or was journalistic laziness to blame?

Asking questions about how Memorial Coliseum will be managed and to what purpose is a legitimate exercise. That’s a task Portland’s mainstream newspaper ought to take seriously. Instead, the paper ran a half-baked recap of talking points with faulty and incomplete analysis. Is editorial bias intruding on journalistic independence, or is this what happens when a newspaper’s resources are stripped bare, leaving no capacity for real investigative reporting?

In her front page article, Helen Jung writes, “The Save Memorial Coliseum campaign, spearheaded by a few architects passionate about the arena, worked.” (Note the emphasis on a "few architects").

Let me turn that statement on its head: “The Raze Memorial Coliseum campaign, spearheaded by a few private sector developers and rich sports team owners passionate about making money, worked.” Is that what you would rather be reading? Because it came close to that and still might.

Jung takes as an article of faith the argument that nobody knows how to manage the Coliseum successfully: “Architects who love Memorial Coliseum would show you the massive glass walls that allow natural light to stream into the seating bowl. They would show you the clever engineering of the roof -- the size of four city blocks -- resting on just four concrete pillars. But it's a little bit harder for them to show the outlines of a good business when looking at the 49-year-old coliseum's financial bones.”

The article states that Memorial Coliseum “has struggled for more than a decade to just break even.” The print version includes a bar chart to support that argument. Unfortunately, it appears to do just the opposite: Over the six year period reported, the chart shows that the City of Portland received close to $2.8 million in revenue from parking and user fees while spending just under $2.4 million running the garage and making some capital improvements. That’s a net gain of $400k (14%) over that period. (Under the management deal for the venue, the Blazers collect all other revenue, such as rentals and concessions, pay the Coliseum’s operating costs, and then split any remaining profit with the city).

Sure, the chart shows that the city has “lost” money over the most recent three years; but that is because it spent money on capital improvements in those years. If there were surpluses from previous years, doesn’t it make business sense to reinvest them in improvements and deferred maintenance? What happened to those surpluses anyway? The article doesn’t explore that question, nor does it report on what the Blazers earned or lost by operating the facility. (A year or two ago, a brief report said that the Blazers broke even operating the venue after years of losing money).

The article correctly notes that “the coliseum needs millions of dollars in fixes, from overhauling its half-century-old electrical system to replacing the roof. Its egalitarian seating arrangement, with no luxury boxes or club seats, makes the coliseum feel more like a high school gym than a venue out to make a profit.”

Why doesn't the article mention that the Blazers recently invested $13 million to upgrade the Rose Garden Arena after less than a decade of use? What makes that a legitimate investment, while maintaining Memorial Coliseum is portrayed as pouring money down a rat hole? By the way, $13 million is exactly what a 2002 study said would need to be invested in upgrades to the Coliseum.

The article briefly describes the management deal struck between the City of Portland and the Blazers. It mentions the “Portland Arena Management” as the Blazers's sister company responsible for managing the venues. It does not mention that Portland Arena Management signed a five year deal with AEG Facilities a few years ago to run the Rose Quarter. It doesn’t mention that Los Angeles-based AEG Facilities is a huge entertainment and venue management conglomerate with a world wide base of operations. (You might call AEG the Halliburton of sports and entertainment management). When the Blazers signed the deal in 2007, its chief operating officer at the time, Mike Golub, described AEG as “the fastest-growing facility management group and one of the most dynamic sports and entertainment companies in the world." Oh boy!

Reports in the Oregonian and other media outlets at the time read like they were transcribed from the Blazers/AEG press release. “The AEG team wants to attract a Rose Garden naming rights partner, coax more development of the Rose Quarter campus, add new events and generate more revenue for Vulcan Ventures, which owns the arena for Blazers owner Paul Allen.” AEG is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Anschutz Company, a sports entertainment outfit that operates the Staples Center in Los Angeles and many other venues and sports teams around the world. Part of its reputation is its ability to sell naming rights for venues, and its development of entertainment centers such as “L.A. Live” – a $2.5 billion district of residences, offices, hotel rooms and event venues which Blazers execs reportedly cite as a model for developing the Rose Quarter.

According to reports, AEG ranks as the nation's second-largest concert promoter behind Live Nation. That's what business folks call "integrated" but you may know it better as a "monopoly." They control the product, the content and the delivery systems. I thought it was interesting that my search of Oregon Live and the Oregonian's archives (thank you Multnomah County Libraries) turned up no further mention of AEG since the 2007 article about the Blazers handing over venue management.

The Blazers are now talking with another mega-developer, the Cordish Co., about creating the entertainment district, so it's not clear what AEG's role is in all this. What seems beyond dispute is that the Blazers and Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures have been hankering for better profits and that Memorial Coliseum is sitting there as a huge obstacle. The connections between AEG, Cordish and Vulcan certainly make discussions about the proposed “entertainment district” more interesting. I won't be surprised if I learn that the Convention Center hotel project, for which Mayor Sam Adams has a powerful itch, gets integrated into this whole development deal. And here's another interesting connection: Mike Golub either quit or was fired by Vulcan recently, and reports are that Merritt Paulson wants to hire him as general manager for that new Major League Soccer team Portland is getting. It is a Small World after all!

As long as we're constructing a house of cards, when AEG took over management of the Rose Quarter, it was reported to have a “strong interest in developing and managing a 2,500-seat arena" on the site. At that seating capacity, such a venue would compete directly with the Schnitzer Auditorium (2,800 seats) and Keller Auditorium (3,000 seats) for commercial concerts, sucking away some of the revenue potential for those venues and destabilizing their financial underpinnings. Guess who gets hurt if that happens? The nonprofit performing companies that use those city-owned facilities at reduced rates thanks to commercial rentals that offset operating costs, that's who. Top on that list are the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Ballet and the Portland Opera, all of which are struggling under current economic conditions. Oy!
So here's what has me riled up: This is all starting to feel Bush league. By that, I mean it's looking like the kind of private sector deal-making that we saw flourishing over the past eight years.

It's Enron and Halliburton rolled together into one flaming clusterf**k.

It's a strategy of belittling and marginalizing opponents, treating them as if they're idiots for not understanding the complexities of the deal.

It's the media rolling over and reporting from press releases and talking points rather than doing its investigative job.

It's spreadsheets with variables jiggered so that the future looks rosy and risk free until it all turns to shit and then what's the next brilliant plan?

It's rich fat cats sucking at the public teat while pocketing all the upside of the deal and walking away from the risks.

It's elected officials wanting to appear decisive and action-oriented, hellbent on creating a legacy greater than scandal.

It's about whatever happened to Portland being a town that knows how to plan?

Okay, I’m not a reporter and I have other work to do and many miles to go before I sleep. All of my investigation of this post was done on a laptop while watching the season finale of "House." If I got facts wrong, tell me and I'll fix them. I'll try to add links and give proper citations later. I didn't even take the time to add a photo to brighten things up.

Go read Bob Hick’s excellent analysis of this story at Art Scatter, which he's titled,"Memorial Coliseum: The Empire Strikes Back." It's brilliant and passionate, and Bob is more articulate about it. I particularly like the questions he raises about the place of profit in managing public facilities that were built for the public good.


culturejock said...

This is a mighty fine piece of reporting for someone who's not a reporter (and all of the other limitations and distractions you described). But even more, it's a great analysis and a powerful opinion piece. Thank you, MTC!

MightyToyCannon said...

Thanks CJ. I got a little steamed up, but it was cathartic. I'm spending tomorrow at the Oregon Arts Commission's Arts Summit on the Nike campus. I wonder whether I'll come back from that as het up. Are you going?