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Revive Memorial Coliseum as new athletic complex

PERSPECTIVES • Renovate or remember, but say no to Home Depot

Recent news articles, including one in the Portland Tribune (Plan converts coliseum to giant retail complex, May 23), have highlighted the proposal by the Portland Trail Blazers to convert Memorial Coliseum to accommodate 'big box' retailers such as La-Z-Boy Furniture and Home Depot.

Absent from these articles has been a serious discussion of the community benefit that would result from keeping the coliseum as a public facility, renovating the building and rededicating it to serve Portland's citizens.

Memorial Coliseum was completed in 1960. Portland citizens paid for the building through their property taxes and dedicated it as a veterans memorial. For over 40 years, it has served as a convention, trade and event venue.

Today, it appears no longer financially feasible to operate Memorial Coliseum for its original purpose. The Rose Garden, Expo Center, Oregon Convention Center and the newly constructed amphitheater in Clark County, Wash., Ñ all of which have been completed or renovated within the last eight years Ñ now get the vast majority of the business that once went to the coliseum.

This situation does not mean that Memorial Coliseum no longer can serve a public purpose. To the contrary, this landmark building and architectural gem can still provide endless years of service to the community.

Last year, a group of community-spirited businesses, along with neighborhood and sports leaders, developed a proposal to convert the coliseum into the Memorial Athletic and Recreation Complex.

The center would have three key objectives: first, to provide residents of the Portland area with a new community athletic and recreation center featuring an NHL-sized ice rink, a 50-meter competition pool, recreational pools, an indoor field house, basketball and volleyball courts, group exercise areas and fitness facilities, a climbing wall, and tennis courts located in an adjacent structure; second, to create a state-of-the-art venue capable of hosting local, regional, national and international athletic competitions; and third, to preserve and enhance Memorial Coliseum as a fitting memorial to veterans.

It would be more than just a large community center. It would allow Portland to host a huge variety of sports and athletic competitions Ñ each of which is the equivalent of a small- or medium-sized convention that would come to town for a week or weekend of competition. In addition, these competitions would bring badly needed business for local hotels, restaurants and retailers.

Some would say that proposing a large, expensive public facility at a time when Portland is suffering through a down economy and a school funding crisis is bad timing. Proponents of the center agree and have purposefully held back on pushing the proposal, particularly until the school funding picture improves.

At the same time, the center could be part of the school funding solution. Participation in school sports programs continues to grow, particularly among young women, and there is a serious lack of facilities in Portland's schools for swimming, basketball, volleyball, track and field and other sports Ñ not to mention the money to run these programs. With the center, the city could provide practice and competition space for the schools in a manner that would lessen the cost burden to the Portland school district.

In a similar vein, Portland appears to be in the process of losing its long-standing role as host for high school championships in basketball, wrestling and other sports because of the city's lack of affordable facilities Ñ particularly Memorial Coliseum.

The loss of these important sources of statewide identity and pride will be a serious blow to Portland's prestige and will have significant economic impact as well. Again, the city could step up to make the center the premier venue for high school championships by providing first-rate, appropriately sized facilities at a price the Oregon School Activities Association can afford.

The future of Memorial Coliseum rests in the hands of the Portland City Council, which ultimately must decide its fate. But its future is really up to the children of this community, their parents and the thousands of other citizens who make up Portland's growing 'healthy city' ethos.

Douglas Obletz is president of Shiels Obletz Johnsen Inc., a Portland development and project management consulting firm. Obletz has been working with a volunteer group of neighborhood, business and sports industry leaders on the MARC proposal since early last year.