Terminal 2 is bleak.
On a wet, gray, late-summer morning, the 45-acre property owned by the Port of Portland—just north of downtown—feels desolate. The hulking cranes are immobile. A massive metal storage building appears, from a distance, to be completely empty. And the parking lots that skirt the edge of Northwest Front are being taken over by ivy and weeds.
While it may be difficult to envision it, Terminal 2 could, in a little more than three years, be completely transformed. The Portland Diamond Project (PDP) has chosen this riverfront expanse for a 32,000-seat stadium that would be home to Portland’s first Major League Baseball team.
It’s an idea Portlanders are familiar with. Over the past two decades, there have been multiple efforts to convince Major League Baseball (MLB) that the city has the infrastructure and the fan base to sustain a team. When it was deemed that the Montreal Expos needed to relocate in 2003, then-mayor Vera Katz and members of the Portland Baseball Group traveled to New York to make a pitch for the city. (Washington, DC, ended up getting the nod.) In 2006, when it appeared that the Florida (now Miami) Marlins wouldn’t be able to secure funding for a new stadium, the team’s ownership group traveled to Portland to assess whether it was the right spot for relocation. It wasn’t.
Considering this history of near and not-so-near misses, a pessimistic stance about the PDP’s chances of building and populating a brand-new baseball stadium along the Willamette River by Opening Day 2023 is entirely understandable. But everything about this attempt feels different.
The PDP has big names in their corner, including Grammy-winning R&B singer Ciara and her husband, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, as well as former ballplayers like Darwin Barney and Dale Murphy. They’ve already secured the support of the mayor’s office and the AFL-CIO labor union, as well as thousands of baseball fans around the state. And they’ve gotten some hints that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office wants to make a Portland team happen.
But most of all, they’ve got money. Lots of money.
As of January 2019, the PDP had financial commitments of more than $1 billion, roughly half the amount they’ll need to build the stadium and pay the fees for either relocating a team or starting one from scratch. It all adds up to the strongest evidence yet that this longtime dream of bringing Major League Baseball to Portland has the potential to become a reality.
For all the cash they have at their disposal, the PDP offices are austere and unassuming. Set behind a storefront on Northwest Quimby that sells branded PDP gear, the main space is cavernous, with a long conference table, a small backdrop printed with the PDP logo for press events (it was here that the Wilsons were announced as co-owners of the venture), and a big tri-panel print of the logo covered in the signatures of folks from around the state, indicating their interest in bringing the MLB here.
“We feel very great about our grassroots, from-the-ground-up movement,” says Craig Cheek, PDP’s founder and president. “We did the state tour, hitting Eugene, Corvallis, Salem, Bend. We’re going around southwest Washington. We’re out in the districts in Portland. Sunday Parkways. The Division Street Fair. Everywhere we go, people are going, ‘Yes, we’re watching. We’re coming to games. Count us in.’”
Cheek’s enthusiasm is understated but infectious, and cut through with a steely-eyed determination that speaks to his success in the business world. Raised in the region, he was, until 2016, an executive at Nike, working as vice president and general manager of the company’s North American operations and then doing the same for their outpost in China. Rather than sliding into a quiet retirement, Cheek says he spent six months traveling and thinking about what his next big idea should be. He finally landed on the questions “Why not baseball, and why not Portland?”
“I looked into it,” he says, “and found there were a couple of little flickers of the now 15-year-old effort that were still percolating around the area, but nobody had really taken the lead and pulled it together. I kind of went, ‘Why not us? Why not now? Why not me?’ and just assumed the leadership role.”
It’s a role Cheek seems particularly suited for—in part because he was able to quickly find the answers to all the questions he posed to himself in 2016. In spite of declining attendance numbers and shrinking stadium sizes, MLB Commissioner Manfred signaled last year that he was interested in expanding the league from 30 to 32 teams. He also dropped Portland’s name as a potential contender for one of the new franchises, something that Cheek learned firsthand.
“One of the first things we did was to fly to New York and meet with the commissioner,” he says. “I said, ‘We’re pretty passionate about this thing and we think it’s Portland’s time. What do you think?’ He assured us that he was excited. He said, ‘Portland’s a city that we’ve been talking about and keeping an eye on. But if you guys shoot the gap and do what you think you could do, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t emerge as a possibility.’”
(Reached via email for a response, the Commissioner’s office tells the Mercury, “There is currently no expansion or relocation process in place. Beyond that, at this time we don’t have any additional comment.”)
Even if league expansion doesn’t happen, there’s still the possibility of relocating an existing team here. At present, both the Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland A’s are scrambling to find the money and support to build new stadiums, and neither team’s future in their present hometowns seems particularly secure.
“It’s very much up in the air,” says Phil Matier, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who’s been closely tracking the developments around the A’s and their current home, RingCentral Coliseum. “The Fisher family, which owns the team, are trying to build a waterfront ballpark at the Port of Oakland. At the same time, they’re also putting in a bid to buy half of the Coliseum site where they currently are, which the city is opposed to. I’m not sure what the end result will be, but the question is ‘How long are the A’s willing to go on with this?’”
But even if the A’s or the Rays decide to pull up stakes, they have plenty of appealing options. The owner of the Rays has discussed the possibility of sharing his team with Montreal. And other names keep bobbing to the surface of these preliminary discussions: Nashville, Las Vegas, Charlotte. Commissioner Manfred has even suggested expanding the league into Mexico.
Cheek knows about all of those contenders, but still thinks Portland remains the frontrunner.
“You want to go to where the action’s going,” he says. “Portland has emerged. Top 25 city. The food-and-beverage scene is incredible. I think we’re ninth in high-paying jobs. The media market has grown. We’ve had baseball here since 1866. The league is looking to fix their two problems and try to get to expansion and pick the cities that are next. The ones that are well-organized and well-capitalized.”
The PDP is covered in both of these categories. They’ve been diligent in their search for the right place to build the stadium, looking at both centrally located properties and options outside the city. Last April, the PDP made formal offers for two sites: the current headquarters for Portland Public Schools on North Dixon, and an industrial site on Northwest Vaughn owned by ESCO, a company that makes mining equipment. Instead, the latter was sold to a different development group, and the PDP withdrew their offer for the former when they learned of Albina Vision Trust’s plan to redevelop the property for affordable housing.
The PDP are now directing their efforts toward Terminal 2, promising quarterly payments of $375,000 to the Port of Portland as they assess whether it will work for a stadium and mixed-use buildings.
“We are trying to amass as much information as we can around the three things that keep coming up,” Cheek says. “Zoning, because it’s in an industrial zone right now; transportation, which we are addressing; and environmental, because you’re on the water and there’s some Superfund issues with the Willamette. The Port is obviously dead center in this, so I think they’re hoping to see a process that is constructive and productive so we can all truly vet if this is the right location.”
Cheek is a little cagier about what might happen if the Terminal 2 site falls through, not even hinting if there’s a backup plan. According to the Oregonian, rumors have been floated about Lloyd Center being an option, but no one at the PDP would confirm or deny that claim.
What is clear, though, is that the PDP have the money and the time to try and see this through. Not only has the initial group of backers promised $1.3 billion, but some of those investors could raise their stake as the project moves closer to reality. The grand total could be closer to $3 billion by the time they break ground.
If there are any red flags about the money being raised, they’re related to the fact that the PDP has only revealed the names of 13 entities investing in this project. That includes the Wilsons; Nike’s VP of Global Footwear Product Creation Mark Allen and his wife; real estate broker Kelsey Williams; and the founder and CEO of Portland Gear, Marcus Harvey. As for the rest, Cheek and his main PR agent John McIsaac say they are weighing when to reveal the others.
During our conversation, though, Cheek may have divulged a bit about where this money is coming from, at least geographically. When I asked whether there was any worry that any of these potential unnamed investors might be controversial choices, he replied that while he did think about such things, “the group we are attracting and rallying around will be a very diverse group. They will have experience nationally and globally. One of the things we talked about why Portland has a unique position is it being a great window into the Pacific Rim. We’re sister cities with China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, et cetera. I think there’s a really interesting connection point, whether it’s taking games over there or a potential connection from an investor over there.”
What the PDP can’t count on, though, is any financial help from the city or state government. Mayor Ted Wheeler has already made it clear that “the taxpayers here are not going to buy a team, and we’re not going to buy a ballpark.” But it’s the Oregon State Senate and House of Representatives that may be placing the hurdle that could slow PDP’s momentum. When Mayor Katz made the case for the Expos to move to Portland, lawmakers decided to back her up by pledging $150 million toward the construction of a stadium—money that has remained untouched since 2003. If both the House and Senate have their ways, that money will be returned to the state’s coffers. This past January, both bodies introduced bills seeking to withdraw that pledge. While these bills never survived the last legislative session, frustration from elected officials remains.
“I’ve never been in favor of it,” says Senator Chuck Riley, who represents District 15 and co-sponsored House Bill 2628, which would dissolve the Major League Baseball Stadium Grant Fund. “It’s taxpayer money. If the taxpayers want to foot the bill for a stadium, they should put it on the ballot and see what happens. I always believe that we should be using the money we have for our most pressing issues, like PERS [Public Employee Retirement System] and education.”
The PDP seems adamant that this is nothing to worry about.
“That money wouldn’t materialize without a team and a ballpark,” says McIsaac. “And as soon as the bond was paid off, all the future money would go back to the state. We estimated the bond could be paid off in one year, with players’ taxes [from subsequent years] benefiting schools, etc. It’s pretty confusing why those bills were ever introduced. But they’re dead now.”
There are still unanswered questions the PDP hasn’t fully addressed. The biggest one: How do you get people to a stadium at the Terminal 2 location? With only one bus line intermittently servicing that stretch of Northwest Front, the only options for most will be bike or car.
Cheek offers up a bevy of solutions—from water taxis, to ferries, to working with Metro to add a MAX line that will service the stadium. He even floats the idea of building another pedestrian bridge over the Willamette. These solutions are reasonable enough, but nothing they can count on to be in place when the 2023 season rolls around.
Even if the transportation issue is solved, there’s still the question of whether people will actually show up for the games. Statewide excitement about having a Major League Baseball team is apparent, but how does that put bodies in seats? While the PDP is happy to tout their social media presence—more than 15,000 followers on their Instagram account, and an online petition edging toward their goal of 50,000 signatures—that doesn’t guarantee all or even most of those people will buy tickets to all 81 home games.
Cheek brushes aside any concerns.
“You can take a look at a couple of proof statements,” he says. “Number one? The Blazers. They’re going into their 50th year and have the NBA record for most consecutive sellouts in NBA history at 814. This was through thick and thin. [Two:] You look at the Timbers and Thorns. The Timbers have sold every ticket for every match since they started. And the Thorns have an average attendance this year of 19,000 and change. That would be higher than seven or eight baseball teams on average. We don’t call ourselves Portland. We call ourselves Sportland.”
Portmanteaus aside, Cheek could be proven correct. There’s a hunger for live baseball in this town, evidenced by the excited fans that fill Walker Stadium to cheer on the Portland Pickles, and the few hundred brave souls who mopped up the rain from the seats at Ron Tonkin Field to watch the Hillsboro Hops kick off their ultimately successful campaign to win the Northwest League Championship. But both teams have the benefit of short seasons, smaller parks, and low ticket prices. Selling out a 30,000-plus-seat stadium night after night is an entirely different animal.
That said, the PDP has time to figure this out. They’re still three or more years away from opening the gates to baseball fans. For the time being, it’s just a matter of keeping people engaged and excited, in hope of using that leverage to convince MLB that it’s Portland’s turn at bat.
“The one thing that keeps me up is just fatigue,” says Cheek. “I get nervous about fatigue with investors, fatigue with a fanbase, fatigue with the political folks. We’re reaching a little bit of a feverish pitch where the movement is top of mind, but I’d hate to think that we’re three to five years off. I’d like to think in the next year that we’ll crystallize the timeline more concretely. Our heads are down right now, and we’re grinding away.”