ALTA BICYCLE SHARE seemed poised to emerge atop the country's new preoccupation with bike share.
After starting up short-term public bike rentals in Boston and Washington, DC, the five-year-old Portland company quickly expanded to the country's densest cities: Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, New York.
Since early 2013, Alta's also been working, without much success, to bring bike share home to Portland. Now the company's hit a financial snag out east, and it looks like Portland won't be home for much longer.
Early last month, reports emerged that the company is in the process of being bought out by a New York concern, REQX Ventures. REQX, a subsidiary of New York real estate firm Related Companies, is negotiating to purchase a stake worth at least 51 percent of Alta, the website Capital New York first reported.
Local sources confirm to the Mercury they've been told a deal is in the works.
So far, most of the speculation around the agreement has centered on what it might mean for New York's Citi Bike system.
Alta's had trouble in a number of its markets, but nothing's been as awful as its quagmire in the Big Apple, where revenue has lagged despite heavy use, software at bike-share kiosks has been plagued by bugs, and the company quickly found itself short millions of dollars.
The conventional wisdom is the REQX deal will solve Alta's cash flow issues, lead to an infusion of millions for the New York system, and potentially result in thousands of the company's bright blue bikes in new parts of New York.
But what does it mean for Portland, where an outstanding contract with Alta sits on ice while the company looks for millions in corporate sponsorships to help pay for a 750-bike system? No one's saying.
"We're monitoring the situation and they're updating us, but we can't discuss our contractor's internal affairs," says Dylan Rivera, a spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). "That's for them to discuss."
An Alta spokeswoman declined to comment, and Vice President Mia Birk didn't return our call.
According to Rivera, PBOT received an overview of Alta's finances when it bid for the Portland bike-share contract. But those finances have clearly changed in light of the situation in New York, and would change again if the company were bought out. Rivera wasn't certain whether Alta would be required to provide updated financial information if it comes under new ownership.
And there doesn't seem to be a lot of clarity in city hall about just how the deal could affect the city's contract.
"I don't know what it means yet," Portland Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick said when asked about the deal.
Some, like Bicycle Transportation Alliance Executive Director Rob Sadowsky, say they're hopeful.
"Will it stay the same company? We don't know," Sadowsky says. "Will it allow them to be competitive? Will it allow them to operate greater economies of scale? We don't know.
"I'm paying attention to it, and I'm not freaked out at all."
In particular, Sadowsky says, he's optimistic a deal might bring better marketing skills to Alta. That could lead, in turn, to the long-sought sponsorships needed to get Portland's system running by next spring.
"The most important concern that we have," Sadowsky says, "is that bike share's not moving forward."