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Hawks alienated ally

• Commissioner Leonard came to distrust owners after meeting
by: , LEONARD

City Commissioner Randy Leonard considers himself a champion of the little guy.

So he set out to help the Portland Winter Hawks and their embattled owners. He leaned on the city to put up replay screens bought by the team. He chaired a meeting with the Winter Hawks, the Trail Blazers and the city to resolve the Hawks' dispute over their Rose Quarter lease.

Today, Leonard has harsh words for the hockey team's owners - Jim Goldsmith, Jack Donovan and John Bryant, whose club is being audited by the Western Hockey League.

'I felt like I was being played,' Leonard says.

Leonard says he asked last year for a receipt for the replay boards, which Hawk owners say cost about $300,000, and Donovan could not provide one.

'I was flabbergasted,' Leonard says. 'I had this sinking feeling as Jack was looking for the receipt that I had the wool pulled over my eyes.'

Then came the meeting of Oct. 11, 2007. Donovan and Bryant attended, as did Trail Blazers executives Mike Golub and J.E. Isaac and some city officials. Leonard says he felt that the Winter Hawks brought up problems with the lease, but no solutions.

'I felt like they were being less than forthright,' Leonard says. 'The Winter Hawks blew an enormous opportunity.'

Later, he saw a game at Memorial Coliseum, watched the replay screens and came away very disappointed in their quality and the video production.

'Bitter' about the screens and put off by the Hawks in the Oct. 11 meeting, Leonard says, 'an impartial observer could conclude, 'Am I in the middle of a used-car deal, or a problem with the Winter Hawks?' '

Leonard also says he believes the Winter Hawks owners have intended to move the team all along.

Donovan, the team president, disputes all of Leonard's points. He says the city wanted to rent the screens for one year, at a cost of $40,000 starting Sept. 9, 2007, and then re-evaluate them.

Donovan says a deal to sell the screens to the city for $125,000 has been struck. 'When it's time to buy them, they'll get every piece of information on the screens. I got everything,' he says. 'Maybe at the time he asked I didn't have it with me.'

Donovan says the team paid $314,000 to a Texas broker for the screens, which he says came from China. The first boards, he says, were damaged by saltwater en route by ship, and the second set arrived late in the 2006-07 season.

Donovan says the October meeting wasn't productive because the Blazers and city both implied strongly that the lease would not be changed, that 'everything was perfect.'

He adds: 'There wasn't any solution to be had out of this. I wish the city would go to the Blazers and say, 'Do anything to make the situation more palatable.' The bottom line is no, they won't. The Blazers have the rights to the whole bloody thing, and the city is happy about it. Nothing has changed.'

Donovan says the Winter Hawks do not have designs on moving the team, although he has explored Salem and the pavilion at the Oregon State Fairgrounds and Expo Center as a possible relocation site. And Victoria and Nanaimo, British Columbia, have been identified by the WHL as prime relocation sites.

'We have no intention of moving,' Donovan says. 'We're in contract with the league that says we're playing here until 2011, unless they approve a pullout.

'What Randy needs to do is tell the Blazers to meet with us and give us a better lease deal, because the Blazers have told us they're going to give us the same lease again.'

Talks are at a standstill

The lease ends in 2013. Golub, the Blazers' chief operating officer, says he and Isaac have presented the Winter Hawks with 'concessions' on the lease. The concessions concern issues such as marketing and promotion, revenue sharing on ticket sales, group sales, and food and beverage.

'If they were to grow the business back to agreed-upon levels, they would share in some upside,' Golub says, adding that 'these ideas have not been met with any acceptance.'

Donovan would not detail what the Hawks want to see changed in their lease, except to say they want revenue from coliseum advertising, food and beverage - and 'it's not going to happen,' he says.

Parking revenue has been off the table, because the city takes the money.

In Salem, the Winter Hawks supposedly would have a favorable deal for concessions, parking, advertising and ticket revenues.

Isaac says the Blazers cannot change much on the lease because the organization pays labor costs at the coliseum and protects the city against losses. The coliseum, he says, has lost money each year since the Rose Garden opened in 1995.

Goldsmith says the team last made money in 1998, the year it won the Memorial Cup tournament. Golub says the current owners knew the lease situation when they bought the team.

Ken Hodge, Winter Hawk general manager and past president and co-owner, for years cited the team's lease as the reason that the Hawks could not turn a profit. Hodge always said that the Blazers would not budge on the lease, so the new trio of owners is not making a new argument.

'That may be true,' Leonard says. 'I don't know about professional hockey leases. But I know about negotiations, and I will tell you if I was them sitting where they were and an elected official's office was trying to help them, I would have taken advantage of that.

'I was frankly a little embarrassed. Frankly, it's not a process I tend to want to be involved in again.'

Leonard and the Blazers say the Hawks can improve their financial picture by putting a better team on the ice and increasing attendance. Portland had the WHL's worst record this season and last.

Salem move would be 'coup'

Leonard chuckles at the prospect of the Hawks moving to Salem.

'It'd be the biggest thing since the Oregon territorial government decided to set up the capital there,' he says, seriously. 'It would be a coup for Salem.'

'It would be shockingly disappointing to the fans and me,' he adds, if the WHL and Winter Hawks tried to move the team. 'The city owns the coliseum and the Blazers manage it, but the Blazers are not so tied into it where they won't do things for the Winter Hawks. (The Hawks) have given me nothing to work with. Some people tell me it's a grander design on their part to move.'

Golub would not say yes or no to repeated questions about whether Blazers would allow the Winter Hawks out of their lease in order to move. The Hawks have only 'alluded' to wanting out of the lease, he says.

'It's part of the sports fabric of the city,' Golub says of junior hockey. 'We would very much support the city's position and have them stay in Portland and honor their lease. It's been a good, long marriage.

'It wouldn't be good for a sport team or its fan base for them to get out of their lease and leave. It wouldn't be good for the city or good for the Trail Blazers. It's not a win for anybody in Portland.'

Donovan and Goldsmith have said they don't want out of the lease or to move.

'But, from a business standpoint, it's coming to an end,' Donovan says, 'and if everything remained status quo, what would you do?'

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