IN THE END, it may all come down to some dumplings.
When City Commissioner Nick Fish went to grab lunch with Randy Leonard at Steamers Asian Street Bistro across the street from city hall on Tuesday, March 10, Fish remained undecided on which way to vote on Leonard's proposed Major League Soccer (MLS) deal. By press time on Tuesday night, Fish was still tight-lipped about his voting intentions, but it's likely that whatever Leonard said about political loyalty over lunch will weigh heavy on Fish's mind when it comes to council's big vote on Wednesday.
Leonard and Mayor Sam Adams have agreed to give Timbers and Beavers owner Merritt Paulson access to $60 million in city-backed loans to renovate PGE Park for an MLS franchise, and build a new Triple-A baseball stadium in the Rose Quarter. Paulson will pay back the loans even if his team or the league fails. Now, all that Leonard and Adams need is a third vote out of five on council to make the deal fly. But there are problems.
"Part of it is, any politician is very excited about having his or her own monument that they can point to," says economist Eric Fruits, who sits on the mayor's economic cabinet. "They can say, that's my stadium, I built it. That's my legacy."
The problem, for Fruits, is that the numbers just don't add up. For example, Paulson is projecting an average ticket price of $33.65 in 2011. Fruits, meanwhile, thinks $21.50 is more realistic for 2011, and points out that slashing the MLS team's projected 2011 revenues to account for this difference would result in the team going from an annual projected profit of $1.8 million to an annual loss.
"It shows you don't need to have too big a change in some of the fundamental figures to have this thing not pencil out," he says, adding that projections about MLS bringing money to Portland from outside the region are wildly optimistic: Numerous studies have shown that MLS has only local appeal.
There's also the reverse Robin Hood problem, of robbing from the poor to subsidize the rich: The deal seeks more than $15 million in urban renewal money, which is supposed to be allotted through the creation of urban renewal districts in "blighted" areas, according to the law.
"Every dollar that goes into urban renewal includes 26 cents that would otherwise be going to Multnomah County's general fund in taxes," says Multnomah County Commissioner Jeff Cogen, who is currently looking to fill a $45 million hole in the county's budget for things like social services, jails, and schools.
"Urban renewal is supposed to be a tool for turning blighted neighborhoods into viable ones," says Cogen. "But if you look at PGE Park, it's between the MAC [Multnomah Athletic Club] and the sparkling new Civic condos. Urban renewal becomes meaningless if you use it everywhere."
"This is quite literally taking money that funds social services in Multnomah County, and school days, and uses that money to build a soccer stadium for a multi-billionaire," says State Representative Nick Kahl, another outspoken critic of the plan.
It was an irony not lost on Commissioner Dan Saltzman when asked on Tuesday whether he had any concerns about the deal that might prevent him from voting in favor.
"Yes, I do have some concerns," he said. "I haven't made my decision yet. But my concern relates to the imagery of the whole deal as it relates to urban renewal areas, and the many moving parts to the deal, almost too many moving parts."
Commissioner Amanda Fritz listed a whole series of negatives to the deal last Friday in an email to local print media—from the creation of a new urban renewal area without an "orderly, independent process," to more obscure concerns about the gender equity of MLS executives.
Nevertheless, Saltzman is unlikely to vote against the deal and be on the losing side of a 3-2 vote with only Fritz for company, whatever his concerns. So in the end, barring unprecedented independence of thought on Fish's part, the success of the MLS deal will have less to do with what's best for Portland, and more to do with whatever was said Tuesday between two commissioners over a fateful plate of chow.