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Monday, March 3, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle Times Staff Reporter

PORTLAND - Inside the Rose Garden, Paul Allen's wired world of sports is whirring like an electric fan. A mammoth scoreboard above the court flashes sharp images of sports statistics with encyclopedic recall. A sound-sensitive ceiling bounces thunderous cheers off the floor like a basketball.

Signposts pointing toward the 21st century are evident in an amalgamation of high technology and entertainment. It's as if Marshall McLuhan's Global Village were built under one potato-chip-shaped arena roof.

Here, the future is now, the possibilities endless. That's what Allen wants Washington lawmakers to remember today as they begin debating Gov. Gary Locke's proposed financing plan for a $402.3 million football-stadium project in Seattle.

The campaign to sell the state Legislature on demolishing the Kingdome in favor of a 72,000-seat stadium could hinge on Allen's ability to peddle the project as something more than a football facility, something reflecting his universe of digital satellites, wireless communications companies and hardware and software firms, of TicketMaster, Starwave, DreamWorks studio and basketball's Portland Trail Blazers.

As the Microsoft co-founder considers buying the Seahawks from California developer Ken Behring, the Rose Garden offers a glimpse at what he might create in Seattle - a technologically dazzling entertainment center that stimulates new downtown development.

"The guy is just at the cutting edge of technology," said J. Isaac, senior vice president of business affairs for Allen's Oregon Arena Corp., the organization that runs the Rose Garden and Trail Blazers and already is planning marketing strategy for the Seahawks.

`So many gadgets, so many perks'

Built on the ashes of a car-wash warehouse, the Rose Garden has become one of the country's most popular entertainment centers, attracting as much attention when used as a concert hall, intimate theater and convention center as in its sports-arena role.

"There are so many gadgets, so many perks," said Mitchell Butler, a Trail Blazer reserve. "There are things here you just never see or experience at other arenas."

Beyond technological innovations, the Rose Garden's effect on the surrounding neighborhood illustrates the vision Allen and his representatives share when it comes to professional sports.

Portland officials say the project helped to revitalize a decaying eastside neighborhood now called the Rose Quarter. The area includes the Garden, the 37-year-old Memorial Coliseum, the Commons public plaza and restaurants, hotels and parking garages.

Allen has purchased land along the nearby riverfront with plans to build cafes and shops. Some envision water taxis eventually ferrying people across the Willamette River from downtown to the quarter.

They also are considering demolishing the Blazers' old home, Memorial Coliseum, in favor of an amphitheater or modern movie house.

Larry Dully, the city's chief negotiator in the Rose Garden deal, said the arena melded into Portland's central redevelopment plan better than expected.

"The Trail Blazers built on that vision and then added to it," said Dully, a Portland Development Commission director.

Same effect on Seattle?

This leads to questions about what would happen in Seattle if Allen gets approval to build a stadium, an endorsement he says he needs before exercising an option to buy the football team by July 1.

Bert Kolde, vice chairman of Allen's Football Northwest and the Oregon Arena Corp., said he hopes a new facility stimulates growth all the way to the waterfront.

"If we do proceed, it's going to have a big ripple affect," he said. "Nobody is measuring that yet."

With the Mariners' new 45,000-seat, retractable-roof ballpark being built south of the Kingdome and the Regional Transit Authority planning a major bus and rail hub at the King Street Station, a new football stadium and exhibition center could help to transfigure downtown, Kolde said.

But redevelopment won't start the way it did in Portland because of one profound difference: financing.

Private investors

The $262 million Rose Garden is an anomaly in the politics of stadium construction. In an era when sports owners demand public assistance for new facilities, the arena was built with mostly private financing.

The city of Portland contributed $34.5 million for roads and a light-rail stop near the 30-acre Rose Quarter. The city expects to recoup its investment in the next six years from parking revenues, a 6 percent fee on ticket sales and money from land it rents to the Trail Blazers. Allen has committed Portland's only major professional sports franchise to stay for 30 years.

Almost everyone associated with the Rose Garden is happy, including nine private investors who put up $155 million. Allen did not offer collateral to insure the deal, but did provide $46 million to the project. Bank loans financed the rest.

Erik Sten, a Portland commissioner who opposes public spending for sports teams, could find little to fault.

"I don't think building arenas helps lower-income people much," he said. "That being said, . . . the Rose Garden has kept alive an important part of our city that could easily go down the tubes."

Chuck Currie, coordinator of a Portland homeless-advocacy group, provided the only opposition by protesting the "forced" closure of a shelter, blocks from the new arena.

Other differences

So far, Seattle's situation has not been as harmonious.

Allen's proposal comes in the aftermath of a Mariner project that roused negative publicity over a ballooning price tag, owners' demands for more money and threats to sell the team.

Unlike in Portland, Allen is not seeking private investors to pay for the majority of the project, which includes a 300,000-square-foot convention center and a parking garage.

Unlike Portland, Allen and Locke are asking citizens to invest in construction of the facility about $300 million through a combination of specialty taxes designed to affect those likely to use the stadium or support football. Similar sources, however, are being used to repay Portland for what it has already invested.

Locke's financing bill calls for a statewide vote June 3 to create a wholesale tax - considered the first of its kind in the country - on memorabilia and team-licensed merchandise.

As an incentive, Allen has pledged to raise $100 million through the sale of permanent seat licenses and his own money, expected to be about $45 million.

Explaining the differences

Some wonder why the Mercer Island billionaire cannot arrange a deal like Portland's. The reason, it seems, is the difference in the Northwest cities and the types of facilities.

The Blazers have been Portland's main attraction for decades, with little competition from other teams or even other entertainment events. That made the arena a safe investment for private financiers.

Puget Sound-area residents, however, can choose among the Seahawks, Mariners, Sonics and University of Washington athletic teams, as well as Seattle Center activities. And competition for the Seattle luxury dollar will escalate in 1999 or 2000 when the M's move into their new ballpark.

Economists also say an outdoor stadium is a risk for private investors because it's not as versatile as an arena. In its first year in 1995-96, the Rose Garden booked events for 170 dates, including 41 Blazer games.

Performance Magazine rated it the second-highest money-making concert venue in North America behind Detroit's Palace at Auburn Hills. The Rose Garden drew 510,275, with a gross revenue of $12.5 million for 47 concerts in its first year.

An outdoor stadium, even if 70 percent roofed as Allen proposes, might attract 40 events through aggressive marketing, Football Northwest estimates.

Looking for other uses

Allen's staff already is considering ways to turn a Seattle stadium into a multi-event building. Harry Hutt, vice president of marketing for the Blazers, said Allen knows he cannot ask the public to pay for a stadium that is used for only 10 National Football League games.

That is why the Blazers' Isaac brought his booking agent to Seattle recently to start exploring possibilities.

Major League Soccer officials have expressed interest in Seattle, and Football Northwest's Kolde thinks a new stadium would attract more business than the Kingdome. That is why Allen wants to manage the facility as he does in Portland. He is offering to abide by a limit on public spending and pay any cost overruns in return for overseeing construction and operation.

That is the system in Portland, where Oregon Arena Corp. not only manages the Rose Garden but also the city-owned Memorial Coliseum.

Allen's fingerprint is evident across the Rose Quarter, which once looked as leaden as a Portland winter. Hours before a game, hundreds stroll in the Commons, the city's largest public plaza. They walk past One Center Court to a fountain where streams of water splash in unison.

Bob Dole's supporters last summer asked to hold a rally here during the presidential campaign because they figured it was Portland's most recognizable landmark.

Perhaps they never heard of snow-covered Mount Hood.

So Paul Allen this week is selling the Washington Legislature a whiff of the spectacular, the idea that he can create a football stadium so dazzling people might forget Mount Rainier, too.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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