I live in the “Rose Quarter” neighborhood of Portland. The name sounds enticing, but what it really means is that I’m just a few blocks away from the Rose Garden Arena, where the Trail Blazers play basketball. I’m also two blocks from the Oregon Convention Center and within the fareless line of city buses and trains. With all that government subsidy, my neighborhood must be awesome, right?
Well, let’s see. The first-level retail in my own building is mostly empty despite the fact that it’s on one of the city’s busiest roads. Aside from real estate offices, the only business open there is a Subway sandwich shop. I have one Starbucks a block to the south of me, another a block to the north, and a third a couple blocks to the east. For food within walking distance I have a variety of ethnic restaurants. Perhaps you’ve heard of them: Taco Bell, Chipotle, and Muchas Gracias. I have lots of burger options too: Burgerville, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Red Robin. There’s one semi-popular bar nearby that I think only gets full after Blazer games. I haven’t been in, but I’m pretty sure it sucks.
All of which is to say that I’m a bit skeptical that adding a government-owned minor league baseball stadium to my neighborhood is going to rescue it:
The Rose Quarter is now in the running for a new minor league baseball stadium as the city and the Trail Blazers explore how to boost business in the underperforming eastside entertainment zone.
The area has struggled to attract people to restaurants and shops on nights when the Rose Garden doesn’t have a basketball game or concert.
The Blazers wouldn’t own the baseball stadium; the city of Portland would. But a Triple A ballpark might complement other development that the Blazers have planned to bring more people to the quarter sandwiched between the Willamette River and Interstate 5.
Getting the city to pay for a new stadium that would drive more customers to the Blazers-owned developments would no doubt be good for the Blazers. I very much doubt it would be good for the city’s taxpayers or the Quarter’s residents.
Speaking of residents, we could use more of them. My building — which is very nice — is one of very few substantial residential buildings in the neighborhood (unless you count the neighboring high-rise retirement home, but I don’t think its occupants are big spenders). If the city is serious about rejuvenating the area, I suspect that increasing the residential options to make it more conducive to mixed use would likely do far more for it and enable more than lousy chain restaurants* to thrive there.
It’s worth looking back at the Convention Center as a lesson here. It’s a textbook example of city government wasting taxpayer money on a massive project that gets nowhere close to meeting its objectives. From a 2005 Forbes article:
Portland’s story is particularly telling. Prior to the 1998 city election Portland’s visitors association estimated the center had missed out on $17 million in convention business over six months because the center was too small. The regional tricounty government proposed an $82 million general obligation bond to pay for the expansion, but taxpayers overwhelmingly nixed it. So Multnomah County floated a separate bond backed by higher taxes on hotel rooms and car rentals, allowing the expansion to proceed. In the meantime new, rival centers were going up all along the West Coast.
The expansion was completed in 2003, with eco-friendly touches like an outdoor “rain garden.” City fathers boasted of landing the 2005 National Square Dance Convention and its 10,000 high-steppers.
The euphoria was short-lived. Apart from big auto and gardening shows, last year’s schedule was packed with what the industry dubs “smerfs,” which stands for social, military, educational, religious and fraternal groups. These visitors typically pack four travelers in a hotel room and don’t have corporate credit cards to blow on expensive meals.
By the end of 2004 the center’s finances were in bad shape. To get 34 decent-size shows, the center had to indirectly waive rental fees for the organizers of 10 of them. The building would have lost $15,000 a day if not for $6 million in tax subsidies. Hotels are 60% occupied, as fewer than 30% of convention-goers last year came from outside Portland.
And now the city wants to fund another grand venture with other people’s money next door. What could go wrong?
[Stadium link via the Oregon Economics Blog.]
*No disrespect to Burgerville and Chipotle. You guys are all right. I’d just like a little local flavor too, you know?