September 18, 2009

Merritt Paulson cuts an obvious figure in Portland. Lean and tall, with the ubiquitous bike-till-you-drop build the city copyrighted long ago, Paulson came to Oregon in 2007 to purchase the fledgling Portland Beavers -- the San Diego Padres' Triple-A affiliate -- and the Portland Timbers of the USL first division, one rung below Major League Soccer.

The 36-year-old Harvard MBA, who cut his teeth as the NBA's senior director of marketing and business development, re-energized both franchises with his vibrancy and Mark Cuban-like willingness to go after referees.

"[Paulson] is a young, very vital owner who's very much involved," said Pacific Coast League president Branch Rickey III. "There's a great deal of trust in Merritt."

He had enough support and momentum that, earlier this year, he tried to bring MLS to the city. Instead, he got a circus. Portland should have been the perfect expansion location for MLS' 18th team. With a "Soccer City, USA" moniker branded in the 1970s, Portland -- the host of Pelé's last professional soccer game -- has a reputation for a European flavor not widely seen in the States.

"You come to Portland and people will leave early to bike home and cook locally caught fish on their fire," said Timbers fan and Oregonian movie critic Shawn Levy. After a Timbers match, "you can walk [on] a colonnade and it feels like you're walking through the streets of Bologna."

The city was never the issue -- it was part financial, part political and part personal. MLS awarded Portland the team in March with the promise of a Sept. 1 financial guarantee, one that would turn the Timbers' and Beavers' current home, PGE Park, into a soccer-only venue. As such, the Beavers, Portland's oldest professional sports team, would be forced to relocate.

But there was a hitch. Sam Adams, the first openly gay mayor of a top-30 American city and one of the biggest soccer proponents in Portland, was embroiled in a scandal that would make even Bill Clinton blush. In January, Adams was forced to reveal an affair with a then 18-year-old legislative intern. An investigation failed to prove any illegality, but as Out magazine wrote, Adams "lied aggressively" about the relationship in the lead-up to the election.

Calls for resignation rang from editorial staffs to former mayors. Adams ignored them, but any type of political capital he had -- and nearly all his ability to help Paulson -- was squelched. An official recall, due Sept. 30, will soon determine the mayor's fate.

Instead of steamrolling a financial agreement for the stadium, Adams had to massage whichever toes he may step on. "There are always unexpected pitfalls that you encounter," said City Commissioner Randy Leonard, one of Adams' staunchest supporters. While Adams says the scandal has been a "peripheral" distraction, the attempts at bringing financial sanity suggest otherwise.

With the Beavers needing a new home, Paulson and Adams turned to Memorial Coliseum. From 1970 to 1995, the Coliseum, not-so-lovingly described as a cement bowl in a glass box, hosted the NBA's Trail Blazers and was the scene of Bill Walton's jersey-twirling celebration when the team won its only NBA championship in 1977. But that was more than 30 years ago. The building has since outlived all necessity.

As plans were being finalized to demolish the Coliseum, though, a band of local architects demurred, writing that it was an "important and beloved landmark even for those unaware of its architectural pedigree."

"Memorial Coliseum is basically a really attractive Costco," Leonard said. "[The architects'] basic argument was that we didn't have the insight into what architectural beauty is. It's like telling me a joke that isn't funny and continuing to explain to me why it's funny."

While Adams cited logistical problems -- "We were operating on the assumption that you could fit baseball into the Rose Quarter without [razing] the financial money-maker of the garages," he said -- others attributed his reneging to the scandal.

Adams acquiesced on the plan to Leonard, who set his sights on the residential neighborhood of Lents in Southeast Portland. With a '96 neighborhood plan calling for a ballpark to be built, there seemed little reason to deny the Beavers entry. But when a trickle of criticism turned into a flood of beet-faced arguments and name-calling, the brakes once again were applied.

Certain members cited usage of public funds as reason for disapproval, but there was a less palatable reason for Lents' uprising: Paulson's lineage. His father is Hank Paulson, the former Secretary of the Treasury. And in a blue-collar neighborhood like Lents, where Hank's name carries more than a fair share of blame for the economic collapse, Merritt didn't stand a chance.

In a meeting with Lents leadership, Paulson was heartily jeered. "He shouldn't ever have been treated that way, and I was offended for him, watching how people were catcalling him from the audience, calling him names," Leonard said. "It was sad, really sad."

Although Paulson denies his name caused any problems, the Lents fracas showed that there is a sort classicism that still permeates in certain areas. "Oregonians are the people who came out on the Oregon Trail, who were the people who weren't going to inherit jacks---," said Levy, one of the most vocal members of the Timbers Army, the team's impassioned fan group. "The number of people who make their homes in this town who are international a success and true, big-money, Forbes-style rich people is very tiny. People here are resentful and suspicious of that kind of status."

Stung by the neighborhood's reaction, Paulson removed the proposal from the table. Three months after being awarded an MLS team, the Timbers had no funding proposal, the Beavers had no home and the MLS-imposed deadline for PGE Park renovations wasn't going to be met.

With nowhere left to turn, Paulson was forced to dip into his deep pockets and turn a public investment into a private one. Already $35 million in the hole for the expansion fee, Paulson agreed to pay $8 million up front, as well as prepay $11.1 million in rent and ticket taxes.

According to reports, the remaining $11.2 million needed will be tapped from the Spectators Facilities Fund, which accrues money from hotel taxes and ticket surcharges in all city-owned arenas. Meanwhile, the city will skate off with only $700,000 lost in waived development fees. Some see the deal as a coup for Portland.

"Right now it looks like the city ended up with a better deal because this debacle happened," said Nick Christensen, who helped spearhead the Lents opposition movement.

But if the city's civic leaders can't flesh out the details by the new Oct. 1 deadline, there is a possibility that MLS could uproot Portland's expansion promise and move it elsewhere, most likely to Montreal. With the new plan this seems unlikely, but there is a very real possibility that the Beavers no longer will call Portland home by 2011.

"At some point, reason has to prevail and you have to acknowledge that Merritt's got to put them somewhere," Leonard said. "I've just seen not seen the political will, absent mine, to keep the Beavers here."

Paulson won't look back and cite any mistakes, choosing instead to keep his eyes set on the Oct. 1 deadline. "I'm a big believer in leaving history to the historians, and am looking forward to moving forward," he said. Then, choosing his words, he added, "It has certainly been an interesting process."

If Paulson gets his way, Seattle and Portland fans will be slinging mud at one another while a renovated PGE Park hosts the Rose City's MLS premiere in 2011. But if he doesn't, this minor-league town will be reeling from a lost opportunity.

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