Lents to Paulson: ‘You’re out!’

If energetic testimony at a Lents Town Center Urban Renewal Committee hearing last week sent a mixed message, the official vote at the official Lents Neighborhood Association meeting made it clear: ‘No new ballpark in Lents’. See exclusive photos – and get the whole story – right here …

Would a new minor league professional baseball stadium be built at the current site of Charles B. Walker Stadium in Lents Park? That’s what this article is all about …

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
First in 2006, then much more so, in July, 2008, word started floating around that Charles B. Walker Stadium, in the northeast corner of Lents Park might become the new home of Portland’s AAA pro Baseball team, the Beavers.

This announcement was greeted both with optimism and concern, as voiced by neighbors at meetings held throughout the summer and into the fall months.

It looked as if the question of whether or not Portland’s Beavers would move to Lents was settled when Portland Mayor Sam Adams started pitching the notion of tearing down Memorial Coliseum to make room for a ballpark in November, 2008.

Then, in the first week of May, Adams backed off that proposal – and attention again shifted to outer East Portland – specifically, Lents Park.

Focus returns to Lents Park
The backers of the Lents stadium brushed off the proposal.

Among many other details, this plan pitched the creation of jobs – between 170 and 250 them – as a plus for the ballpark; they estimated the annual economic of bringing minor league baseball to Lents would produce about $20 Million for the greater outer SE Portland area.

Two of the chief early concerns expressed by neighbors were uneasiness about whether the new ballpark would be a good investment of Lents Urban Renewal dollars – and about parking.

Lents URAC holds purse strings
Tearing down Walker Stadium, and then rebuilding a new stadium and facilities, was a project to be financed with $40 million of the Lents Urban Renewal district’s available “tax increment funds” (TIF) – money the Portland Development Commission (PDC) accrues in the area by property tax levels, and taking the balance of the funds between the frozen property tax level and the current tax rate.

Overseeing how the PDC spends TIF money is the Lents Urban Renewal Advisory Committee (URAC). This committee is comprised of neighbors, businesspeople, government leaders, and other stakeholders.

A crowd – some estimate it at over 100 – of folks mostly from “Friends of Lents Park” gather at the Mt. Scott Community Center to protest the new Beavers stadium project.

An acrimonious gathering
Earlier this month, the Lents URAC announced they would vote on whether or not to allocate $42.3 million in Lents Town Center urban renewal funds for a Lents Park Beavers stadium on June 18. A day before the meeting, we learned that the URAC committee would not be voting, but would be taking testimony.

When we pulled up to the Mt. Scott Community Center on SE 72nd Avenue at SE Harold Street, a large group of protesters – primarily from a newly-formed group called “Friends of Lents Park” – had already gathered. They waved signs, chanted slogans, and sang a rather clever, but unflattering, parody of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”.

Protesters pointed out Kathleen Juergens de Ponce as their spokesperson. “We are completely against the professional ball stadium located in Lents Park for a number of reasons.”

Friends of Lents Park spokesperson, Kathleen Juergens de Ponce, asserts there are many reasons a minor league baseball stadium shouldn’t be built in Lents Park.

Asked to briefly enumerate, Juergens de Ponce told us, “First, it will create an incredible, extreme livability impact. The houses [surrounding the park] would hardly be habitable anymore.

“Secondly, this is our public park. The development associated with the stadium would take up almost half of the total acreage of the park.

“Third, is the fact that they’re planning to spend this much of our urban renewal money – and we oppose any urban renewal money going for this – on this project. The money should be spent on affordable housing and business development, particularly.”

Kenneth Aaron with www.NeighborhoodNotes.com talks with Portland Development Commission’s neighborhood manager of Lents and Gateway Amy Miller Dowell.

Inside the community center, we visited the information fair that the PDC had set up in a gymnasium.

There, Amy Miller Dowell, neighborhood manager of Lents and Gateway for the Portland Development Commission, said, “The goal of this meeting is to allow the URAC members to hear some of the goals [of the Beavers Stadium project] that they should be considering as they make a recommendation to City Hall whether or not urban renewal funds should be spent on building the minor league baseball stadium in Lents Park.”

The PDC wasn’t taking a position on the issue, Miller Dowell said. “We’re waiting to hear what is recommended and we will be providing information. Than, we’ll be implementing whatever is decided. We want to make sure that people have all the information they need to make a tough decision.”

Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard listens to remarks – both for and against the new stadium project – minutes before he testifies at the Lents Town Center URAC meeting.

Pros and cons aired
Just before the meeting began, Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard told East PDX News, “I want the Lents urban renewal advisory committee to vote on the facts. Increasing the volume of one’s voice does not create facts where they don’t exist. I’m going to speak to exactly what the facts are.”

Leonard clicked off this list:

  • The baseball stadium goes on the footprint of the existing stadium. “A lot of people don’t know that.”
  • The whole park isn’t being taken away to build a baseball stadium.
  • The Lents Little League fields are not being displaced.
  • The soccer fields are not being removed. “Only one soccer field is being displaced, and we’re replacing it with a world-class soccer field. The one that’s there now is one of the most dangerous in Portland.”

The auditorium at Mt. Scott Community Center fills to capacity before the meeting begins.

“In short, I’m still enthusiastic about the project,” Leonard said.

Asked about the concern about parking, Leonard replied, “We have a brand-new light rail line to go up and down the I-205 corridor. We have thousands of parking spots between Gateway in Clackamas [along the I-205 MAX line]. They’ll get off and be one block from the park.

Amid catcalls and shouted rude remarks, Portland Beavers’ owner Merritt Paulson makes a hasty departure from the URAC testimony meeting.

Introducing Mr. Merritt Paulson …
At the top of the meeting, Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Portland Beavers minor league team asked to speak for a moment. He was heckled and jeered so loudly, we couldn’t make out his remarks from our audio recording.

“It’s your decision,” Paulson concluded. “I will embrace whatever decision you make. There are people here to answer questions you may have tonight. Thank you for your consideration.”

The Lents URAC members listen to comments for hours – and take a survey.

During the meeting, audience members electronically clicked in their responses to a survey. It indicated that 47% of those attending were either “Aware; but not involved” or “Not aware or involved” with Lents URAC activities before this meeting..

While 63% of respondents strongly agreed that “Economic revitalization that benefits local residents, businesses and property owners” – 70% voted againstCreating amenities in Lents to make it an entertainment destination.”

The top three “Leading concerns about the stadium in Lents” were:

  • 68% voted they had a “Combination of concerns”;
  • 21% said it diverts Urban Renewal funds to one project;
  • 06% indicated they were concerned with loss of park land and open space.

Paulson withdraws
On the following day, June 19, in a letter addressed to Mayor Sam Adams and the Portland City Council, Merritt Paulson “pulled the plug” on building the new stadium in Lents Park.

In part, he wrote:

[for several reasons, including] a lack of community support for a new Triple-A stadium in Lents, I am withdrawing our proposal for a Lents baseball stadium. I am grateful for the time and serious consideration the neighborhood leaders, city staff, elected officials, and Lents residents have given this proposal the past few months, but it is now clear that the community-at-large has not embraced this idea.”

In light of Paulson’s letter, the meeting at which the Lents Town Center Urban Renewal Advisory Committee was to vote on the proposal on June 25 was, understandably, cancelled.

Lents neighbors meet

With these ballots, members of the Lents Neighborhood Association were asked to vote on the baseball stadium proposal on June 23.

Even though the new baseball stadium deal for Lents Park was dead, the Lents Neighborhood Association (LNA) board let members know an official vote would be taken at their June 23 meeting at the Lents Seventh-day Adventist church auditorium.

LNA’s chair, Damien Chakwin told the crowd of about 200 people that they’d need to produce positive identification with their address to assure that only Lents residents voted. “We want to take a stand, as a neighborhood, on this project. On the ballot, there are three choices – these choices reflect what the URAC was considering.

LNA chair, Damien Chakwin, outlines the voting procedure at the monthly meeting.

Longtime LNA attendees say they’ve never seen so many people at a neighborhood association meeting. Several told us this was their first time attending any neighborhood association meeting.

The idea was, Chakwin said, to present information about the proposed stadium, to allow all residents to vote, and to place their ballots in a box until the end of the meeting.

At 9:00 p.m., when the group was scheduled to vacate the building, the ballot box would be sealed and placed in the protective custody of East Portland Neighborhood Organization Executive Director Richard Bixby. The ballots would be counted the following day, by Chakwin and Nick Christensen.

Jess Laventall and member Ray Hites, members of the Lents Town Center URAC, attempt to make a presentation before their neighbors.

Motion from the floor interrupts presentation
Jess Laventall, soon to be retiring member of the Lents Town Center URAC and member Ray Hites stepped up to make a presentation about the baseball stadium project.

“Using this money, there are tradeoffs we have to make,” Laventall began. “If we invest in this project, several other projects will be delayed, put on hold or curtailed. Different scenarios would have different outcomes.”

Before they could go further, questions were blurted out, and hands went up signaling more questions. Some questioned the wording of the ballot, others about how URAC members are chosen. No questions were raised about the stadium project.

Others questioned the balloting method and insinuated improprieties of those in charge.

Kristina Lake (seated to the left of the standing person) moves that the ballots be counted at the half-way point of the meeting; Kathleen Juergens de Ponce (standing) seconds the motion and advocates for Friends of Lents Park point of view.

From the audience, past LNA Chair, Kristina Lake, stood and moved to have the ballots counted at the meeting. The motion was seconded by Kathleen Juergens de Ponce.

After some lively – and not always polite – discussion, Chakwin called for the question – a vote on the motion. The group voted to have ballots counted at the midpoint of the meeting.

The Chair then asked how many present had not yet voted – dozens of hand went up.

The following photographs tell the remainder of the story:

The neighborhood association meeting stops so that Lents residents present could cast their votes. LNA Secretary Jalene Braun checks and approves Virgil Smith’s identification.

Nick Christensen, endorsed as their representative of Friends of Lents Park and LNA chair Damien Chakwin count ballots; EPNO executive director Richard Bixby (standing) monitors the process.

Chair Chakwin reads the result of the balloting.

The results:
Option A – “No funding” whatsoever: 147 votes
Option B – “partial funding of $27.3 Million: 6 votes
Option C – “Funding 42.3 Million”: 12 votes
votes, agreed on by both parties, and the impartial judge: 5 votes

A gleeful Kathleen Juergens de Ponce with Friends of Lents Park holds a cake, shaped and decorated like a tombstone, celebrating the demise of the Lents stadium project.

Neighbors disagree regarding process
After the meeting, Kristina Lake told us, “It was an unusual process to take ballots offsite and count them. I’m satisfied about the outcome. But, it was challenging to get a fair process. But, the voice of the community is finally on the record.”

Most Lents neighbors who were in favor of the stadium project – or were open to the possibility of exploring it further – declined to be quoted or named.

“Whenever I asked a question or tried to discuss it with someone who doesn’t want the stadium, I was treated very impolitely,” one person said, asking not to be named. “Those who opposed the stadium spread untruths, or half-truths about the project. But, the opponents were, indeed, very well – perhaps professionally – organized. While they got out the vote, I’m not sure it was representative of the neighborhood as a whole,” said another.

Judy Welch, past chair, Lents Neighborhood Association and 48-year Lents resident, told us she was open to the idea of building a new stadium.

“It gave us the possibility of bringing in new jobs. I’ve seen very few plans, other than this one, for projects that would actually bring new jobs into Lents. Now, how many businesspeople will say, ‘No, let’s not consider putting our business in Lents – people there are not very nice?'”

About the outcome of the project, Welch noted, “Everybody in Lents has the right to their thoughts about the new stadium project. We have the responsibility to respect each other. I’ve always respected a vote of the people.”

About behavior she saw at the hearing and neighborhood meeting, Welch didn’t mince words, “Some of the behavior I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks was just plain bad – it was inappropriate. The shouting, the name calling – it was rude.”

Looking to the future, Welch concluded, “Now that this is settled, I hope neighbors who have disagreed can find a way to be civil to one another. We all still live here, and need to find ways to help Lents improve.”

By the way, if you never saw the proposed plan for the new baseball stadium for Lents Park, here’s the diagram.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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