Seattle

TBT: Delta Dome and how Portland's big-league dream was barely derailed in 1964

TBT: Delta Dome and how Portland's big-league dream was barely derailed in 1964

Do you ever get frustrated that Portland doesn’t have an NFL team? A major-league baseball team?

Well, let me tell you how close we came to having both, way back decades ago –- back at a time when even politicians were on board for an exciting Portland sports future.

It was 1964 and the Houston Astrodome was being built and everyone knew that at some point, major-league sports had to come to the Pacific Northwest. And didn't a domed stadium seem like the right way to get them?

Seattle and Portland were on equal sports footing at that time – minor-league baseball franchises in the Pacific Coast League and minor-league hockey in the Western Hockey League. Seattle was still three years away from landing the NBA Sonics.

The idea of a domed stadium was originally part of a plan for a Portland bid to host the summer Olympics, which in those days was still an affordable plan. The centerpiece of that bid was a domed stadium in Delta Park, north of Portland, surrounded by a myriad of other sporting venues.

Eventually, when it was apparent the Olympic bid was  going nowhere, people began to get the idea of chasing pro football and major-league baseball – beating Seattle to the punch.

Then-governor Mark Hatfield and Portland mayor Terry Shrunk were behind the proposal and pushed hard for it and a hastily put-together campaign began -- to get a ballot measure passed in the city to fund what was then a $25-million project.

The 46,000-seat stadium would feature a dome that would be plexiglass and would not enclose the stadium – just cover it. There was to be a breezeway between the roof and the seating area, meaning it would not have been climate controlled. Still, for its time, it was a very innovative project.

Even better, there was a very real possibility of big-league sports being lured to Portland.

The American Football League Oakland Raiders were still uncertain about their future in that city and the prevailing rumor was that their youthful general manager, Al Davis, was ready to load the moving van and bring the team to Portland if the local ballot measure passed.

Believe it or not, in 1964 that didn’t bring about a whole lot of excitement. Nobody knew at that time the AFL, behind Davis as its commissioner, would force a merger and become part of the NFL. In fact, the NFL wasn’t even that big of a deal in those days.

There was also hope for a major-league baseball team because there were franchises in trouble and rumors of expansion.

Sadly – for sports fans at least – the ballot measure failed in Portland by fewer than 10,000 votes. Later, the same measure was put up for a vote in Multnomah County and failed by about the same margin.

Seattle, of course, landed the MLB Pilots in 1969 and they played in tiny Sicks’ Stadium, the Triple-A ballpark. That team left after one season and Seattle didn’t get an NFL or big-league baseball team until after the Kingdome was built in 1976.

I’m convinced Portland could have beaten Seattle into both leagues with that dome.

And that ballot measure should have passed in Portland, by the way, but mistakes were made.

First off, the advocates didn’t do a very good job of convincing Portlanders that big-league teams could be lured to the stadium, But history shows they probably could have – a domed stadium would have been impossible for expansion-minded NFL and MLB owners to pass up.

Yes, even in those days, it was difficult to convince the locals we could actually become a big-league city.

The biggest reason for the measure’s defeat, though, was the location. First of all, it would have been better to get the stadium measure passed without naming a location.

Delta Park was too much to overcome. The fact that 1964 was fewer than 20 years after the Vanport flood, which saw the area of Delta Park under water, really hurt the effort. Even though they were assured that Columbia River dams would keep that tragic event from happening again, too many people were worried the new stadium would end up floating away in a flood. There were also complaints at the time that the stadium would be closer to Vancouver -- which was not paying any part of the bill -- than Portland.

As it turns out, the area has never been flooded and the city of Portland has pretty much extended past Delta Park. And Portland remains pretty much a minor-league town other than the Trail Blazers.

Because of a paltry 10,000 votes.

Editor's note regarding photo:

"A postcard of a proposed stadium in Portland, Oregon which was up to a vote on the county ballot. Measure 2 approval would have meant the Delta Park area of Portland would have been converted into a 40,000 seat domed multi-purpose stadium. Votes ultimately rejected the bond."

Seattle has a plan to renovate Key Arena -- likely for the NHL

Seattle has a plan to renovate Key Arena -- likely for the NHL

A private group based in Los Angeles seems to have a plan to renovate Seattle's Key Arena, with the idea of finally making it suitable for hockey and, of course, eventually land an NBA franchise for the city.

The group, Oak View Group, is headed by Tim Leiweke, who has been involved in the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League, as well as other sports ventures. Dynamic super-manager/promoter Irving Azoff serves on the board of Oak View.

Leiweke has virtually guaranteed that if the arena project is completed, Seattle will get "a team:"

"We're going to get you a team," OVG CEO Tim Leiweke told reporters following the winning bid. "Mark it right here. I promise you … we're going to get you at least one team."  

That team quite obviously is in the NHL, which now features an odd number of teams and needs another franchise in its Western Conference. I have two things to say about this announcement:

  • First, it means Portland's immediate chance of landing an expansion team in the NHL are likely zero. That league has seemed totally sold on Seattle over Portland for a while now and this pretty much locks it up. The chance of moving an existing struggling franchise to Portland still exists, however -- although I have heard nothing about such a thing in a while.
  • I've never been all-in on the idea of renovating an existing arena or stadium. It's been done before at Key Arena and didn't have much of an impact. At the cost of this renovation ($600 million) it seems like a very big project. But it's a fixer-upper, just the same. I've seen cities do this in an effort to save inadequate arenas and stadiums and they usually end up not working. Better to just find a plot of land and build something new. I've seen Portland's stadium go through so many iterations to get to the point of being Providence Park and it's still a stadium with charm -- but inadequate concourses, rest rooms, concession stands and sightlines. For all the money spent on it over the years it would have been better to build something updated and more comfortable. I'd say the same for Portland's Memorial Coliseum -- the only renovation that would work there is to just level it and start anew. In Seattle, they better have a great plan because these remodels are often tied to an inadequate structural support system. And that's enough money to come very close to constructing a new arena. Politics, though, have made that almost impossible in Seattle.