Athletic center for public may be gaining support as next use for underused war memorial

Douglas Obletz calls the proposed Memorial Athletic & Recreation Center a one-of-a-kind convention center for sports Ñ a winner for a metropolitan area that's home to Nike Inc., Adidas America, Columbia Sportswear Co. and legions of people who are into participant sports.

MARC, as it's called for short, would be built on three floors within the glass cube that is the 40-year-old Memorial Coliseum. It would offer an abundance of athletic facilities, from swimming pools to a National Hockey League-size ice rink, from a climbing wall and basketball courts to a floor of flexible free space for a wide range of events.

'Essentially we're trying to do two things,' said Obletz, president of Shiels Obletz and Johnsen, a project and development management and consulting firm. 'We want to create a large-scale community and athletic facility that would serve Portland and all of the region.'

Second, he said, it would be a venue 'for a huge list of athletic events,' ranging from swimming tournaments to high school athletic competitions, that would attract sizable numbers of visitors, and their money, to Portland.

'There would be a significant economic impact,' he said, pointing to the millions of dollars spent by visitors to Indianapolis after the Midwestern city decided about two decades ago to develop facilities that would make it a center for amateur athletic events.

Obletz and others have been working on the MARC idea for about two years, assembling a cadre of supporters that includes an A list of prominent Portlanders, from the Melvin Mark Cos. to Ashforth Pacific Inc. President Hank Ashforth, investor John Carroll and Phil Kalberer of Kalberer Properties.

'I've never seen a project that kind of sells itself like this,' he said. 'It just needs a little political push to move it along.'

The cost of remodeling the coliseum for MARC ranges from a low-end figure of about $80 million to more than $100 million, a city estimate, which includes the cost of building a parking garage.

Ideally, Obletz said, the City Council will designate MARC as the favored option for the coliseum and allot six to 12 months for the group to come up with an economic impact analysis and a business financing plan.

'If it doesn't work, we'll walk away. Otherwise, we'll have a plan done,' said Obletz, who envisions corporate sponsorships that would help pay for MARC.

Heavy hitters like idea

The Portland Oregon Visitors Association and the Oregon Sports Authority both have endorsed the idea. Equally important, MARC has the support of the Veterans Action Committee, a group formed to watchdog proposals for the coliseum, which was built in 1960 as a war memorial.

From an attraction standpoint, 'part of it is the quality of the facility,' Obletz said. Besides a pool for recreational swimming, for example, MARC would have a 50-meter Olympic-size swimming pool, incorporating the major design advances of the last few years and using as its model the Sydney Olympics pool, dubbed 'the fastest pool in the world.'

With that kind of pool available, 'the swimming community will respond by wanting to use it for major competitions,' he predicted. 'There are good pools in this country, but I think Portland could have a better pool.'

At present, the city has just three 50-meter pools. One, at the Multnomah Athletic Club, is private; another, at Mt. Hood Community College, is an outdoor pool. The third, at the Tualatin Hills Recreation Center, is public but has limited seating.

A plan by the Oregon Arena Corp., which manages the coliseum for the city, to transform it into a shopping center gives people an idea of the alternatives available for the coliseum, Obletz said.

'We could try to save it Ñ or we could have a Home Depot.'

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