After years on the bench, Portland takes a swing at Major League Baseball
To David Kahn, impatience is a virtue.
He thinks his restlessness, for instance, drove him to reach a sports business pinnacle Ñ becoming general manager of the NBA's Indiana Pacers Ñ just eight years after entering the field.
In the next few weeks, Kahn's virtue, as it were, will be tested: He's the point man for the group that is lobbying Major League Baseball to move the itinerant Montreal Expos to Portland.
In so doing, the former Portland sports columnist must impel business interests to support a team while convincing state legislators that, somehow, a $336 million big-league baseball stadium (a 2001 estimate, not including a $70 million to $100 million roof) can be built without creating new taxes.
Kahn is working on the project with the Portland Baseball Group and the Oregon Sports Authority. He has a tough job. For example, corporate representatives contacted by the Tribune expressed little interest in supporting big-league ball.
Business involvement is one of the key factors that the league studies in determining whether a city will provide a healthy fan base.
'We're not in a position to sponsor or provide other financial support for any potential stadium or baseball complex or team,' said Bill MacKenzie, Intel Oregon's public affairs manager. 'We prefer to focus our resources toward math and science educational programs.'
While representatives of a few companies, such as the R.B. Pamplin Corp. (owner of the Tribune, among other interests) and Tualatin-based Lumber Products Inc., said they'd consider buying blocks of tickets, they wouldn't commit to participating as sponsors.
The lukewarm corporate response stems mainly from Oregon's troubled economy.
'You're asking them this at a time when the economy is particularly soft and everyone's doing a lot of belt-tightening,' said Will Glasgow, a longtime Portland baseball activist. 'The first area to go is marketing. If they don't sponsor something now, they might have a different take three years from now.'
Added Kahn: 'To look at this as a one- or two-year issue isn't pragmatic. It's a move that'll provide benefits for the next 40 years.'
Major League Baseball officials told Portland city leaders late last month that they consider the city a top candidate when it relocates the Expos in 2004. Mayor Vera Katz subsequently reiterated her longtime support for landing a big-league team.
The league took over the Expos, baseball's most troubled franchise, before the 2002 season in an agreement that allowed then-owner Jeffrey Loria to purchase the Florida Marlins. The league installed a management team to run the Expos through the 2003 season.
If the team relocated here in 2004, it would play its games temporarily at PGE Park.
Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia also are being considered for the Expos relocation.
Major league baseball first hit Portland's radar in the mid-1980s, when Glasgow proposed that the then-struggling Seattle Mariners play 15 games a year here. The Portland Baseball Group eventually formed and helped coax legislators to introduce a stadium-funding bill during the 2001 legislative session.
Despite the bill's failure, baseball backers kept at it and eventually enlisted Kahn.
In so doing, they gained instant standing.
'His background adds credibility to the campaign,' said Drew Mahalic, the sports authority's chief executive officer.
Kahn, who completed his four-year contract as the Pacers' general manager last summer (he still serves as the team's special adviser), returned to Portland because his wife, Kerry McClenahan, lives here with their 11-year-old daughter, Marika, and 15-month-old son, Kellen.
'This is serendipitous; this is my hometown,' Kahn said. 'And this is my issue. I think I can be helpful.'
Born and raised in Portland, Kahn spent six years with The Oregonian before leaving after a dispute with management. He promptly enrolled in law school and three years later landed a job at Proskauer Rose, a New York law firm that represents the NBA, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball.
After practicing law for two years, Kahn landed a job with the Pacers. Among other duties, he helped oversee the construction of Conseco Fieldhouse, considered one of the NBA's best arenas. He participated in the building's design, funding and marketing.
The experience will certainly help him in Portland, said Pacers President Donnie Walsh.
'I think David's well qualified to lead an effort in that direction,' Walsh said. 'He's very familiar with all the revenue streams and expenses associated with professional sports.
'He's a bright and energetic guy who has a network of people he can draw upon to make something like that happen. This type of project would be perfect for David.'
Timing is everything
Kahn's perfect project begins in earnest next week when he and other baseball proponents begin meeting with business leaders.
Their messages will include:
• A second major league franchise would make Portland 'a more vibrant place to live.'
• Sports provides a 'cultural outlet for community bonding.'
• The window of opportunity for attracting a team is small. Kahn thinks that Portland must act now in order to collect the Expos or the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, which could move after the 2004 season.
'We must win passage of (stadium) legislation with this year's Legislature, so that the baseball stadium can be built by 2006 or 2007,' Kahn said.
The group will meet with MLB's relocation committee in March.
Kahn knows that many Portlanders remain skeptical. Naysayers say the city cannot support two teams, legislators would balk at approving a new stadium while making drastic cuts to schools, and the efforts seem frivolous during uncertain economic times.
To the first argument, Kahn says Portland has become an urbane city with new residents who crave top-flight entertainment.
'It's a much more sophisticated place than it once was,' he said. 'The city and state sees itself as much more major league than it used to.'
To the legislative argument, Kahn insists that any stadium financing would come from 'monies that would exist only if there's a stadium and baseball team here.'
Backers are considering several stadium financing options, including tax-increment financing and earmarking state income taxes paid by the team to pay off bonds.
The baseball group and the city already have studied several potential sites, including two pieces of east-side property near the Broadway Bridge. One houses the Portland Public Schools administration building and the other, Memorial Coliseum.
As for the economy, Kahn thinks that the tech sector, Portland's foundation, will bounce back. He further contends that stadium construction could serve as an economy-boosting public works project.
'There will be a lot of locally based jobs from this,' he said. 'Maybe it's a perfect time for it.'
And despite this week's lukewarm response from potential backers, Kahn argues that Portland has 'just enough' potential sponsors to go around.
'We realize that people have financial issues in front of them, and, in many cases, we're asking for modest amounts,' he said.
Paupers need not apply
Even if Kahn succeeds, things won't be easy. Glasgow, while supporting the baseball group's efforts, points out that the Portland market resembles those of Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, cities that have hosted struggling franchises lately.
'We're the largest market without a baseball team, but we'd still just be average for baseball,' Glasgow said.
What's more, a successful Portland baseball team would require an owner who will stay in it for the long haul.
'You need someone with very deep pockets,' Glasgow explained. 'Most of these teams don't generate operating profits. They either generate tax advantages or capital gains when the owners decide to sell.'
Regardless, Glasgow and Chuck Korr, a sports union historian with the University of Missouri-St. Louis, agree with Kahn that Portland should take its best baseball shot.
'I can't see where Portland would be the lesser for having a baseball team,' Korr said. 'It's great summertime entertainment.'