THE LENTS NEIGHBORHOOD in Southeast Portland is grappling with the make-or-break deal of a lifetime. Last week City Commissioner Randy Leonard and Major League Soccer backer Merritt Paulson asked the neighborhood to gut its urban renewal fund to pay 80 percent of the construction cost for a new Beavers Triple-A Baseball stadium in Lents Park. But currently, there is no solid economic analysis that shows the $42 million would pay off for the neighborhood economically.
"This is a risk," Leonard told the neighbors at a special meeting of the Lents Urban Renewal Advisory Committee last Tuesday, May 12. "There's a chance that in five years I might be sitting here strapped to a chair, forced to listen over and over to what I've said here today." Leonard says he needs to find a place for the Beavers stadium quickly in order to turn their current home, PGE Park, into a Major League Soccer stadium.
The $42 million the stadium would use from the urban renewal fund is money the neighborhood sets aside for affordable housing, business development, and street improvements in the depressed area.
Despite the risk, Leonard tried to sell neighbors on the idea that the stadium will bring people, pride, and money to the downtrodden neighborhood. "It is my unshakable belief that if we build a stadium in Lents, it will cause developments to happen that would never happen otherwise," said Leonard. For support, Leonard pointed to a single study, from Stanford Graduate School of Business, showing a Major League Baseball/Soccer stadium in San Diego that was a "tremendous success" for both city and team.
But economists say that study does not prove the Triple-A stadium will revitalize the neighborhood or create new revenue for Portland.
"The point of a modern stadium is to keep all the money spectators are spending within the stadium—not in the area around it," says Roger Noll, a Stanford economist and editor of the book Sports, Jobs, and Taxes.
The Portland Development Commission's (PDC) draft budget of what Lents Town Center Urban Renewal Area will have to cut in 2010 and 2011 to pay for the stadium has a lot of zeroes. For those two years, the stadium cost would eat up all of Lents' business development funds ($2.6 million), all of its affordable housing budget ($7.4 million), all of its funds to build neighborhood sidewalks ($500,000), and $6.6 million from the plan to redevelop the ailing Lents Town Center.
Some neighbors balked at the steep cost and uncertain benefits.
"You do not need a ballpark to revitalize. You need the projects this will cut," Lents resident Kristina Lake told the packed meeting room.
Of those projects, affordable housing cuts received the most pushback and debate. Legally, each urban renewal area is required to spend 30 percent of its budget on affordable housing. But Leonard and Mayor Sam Adams want to change the rules so that 30 percent of urban renewal funds citywide would go toward affordable housing, freeing up Lents to chop its budget for 2010 and 2011.
"Lents, at market rate, provides enough affordable housing," Leonard told the neighbors. "We think that the money ought to be spent on economic stimulus projects."
In the last three years, the PDC used Lents' urban renewal funds to counsel and financially aid 600 new homeowners in the neighborhood. That same number would have to seek out help from private companies if the stadium deal goes through.
While Lents Urban Renewal Advisory Committee Chair Cora Potter agrees that $42 million is a "big scary number," she says the projects receiving zero dollars in 2010 and 2011 are not getting "cut"—just put on hold until after the stadium is built. And, she says, bringing the Beavers to Lents is exactly the sort of project urban renewal money should be funding.
"It's for the big projects that could catalyze economic development that could normally not be developed by private investment," says Potter.
Other neighbors see it differently. "I want to see Lents Town Center rebuilt. That's what urban renewal is for—rebuilding a community, not making Paulson richer," says committee member Clint Lenard.
"They talked about the economic benefits of it as if it was a sure thing, but I think people need a little more confidence in that," says Jeff Rose of the Lents Neighborhood Association. "What neighbors really need is just a grocery store."
Private consultants are currently working to complete an economic analysis of the stadium's impact on Lents and larger Portland, compressing a typical several-month timeline into two weeks. But if the rushed deadline can't be met, the Lents Urban Renewal Advisory Committee will have to vote on whether to fork over $42 million without seeing any hard numbers on what they will get in return.