Portland: City of small dreams and missed opportunity

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 

As any number of inspirational quotes reminds us, you must dream big in order to achieve great things. Or, as author Israelmore Ayivor puts it, "Never leave the egg in you not laid," which probably lands somewhere between inspirational and bizarre.

For a brief, short-lived, never-duplicated time some 50 years ago, Portland dreamed big. This might seem odd for a city that now lives by the mantra of "Keep Portland Weird"; for a city that acts as though food carts represent sophisticated dining; for a city that thought turning the east bank of the Willamette River into a freeway was a good idea. This might seem odd for a city that takes pride in its rejection of the most grandiose of ideas, but in the early 1960s, Portland made a sincere bid to host the Summer Olympics.

In 1962, guided by Mayor Terry Schrunk and local corporate leaders, Portland made a pitch to be the U.S. entry in the race for the 1968 Summer Games. The American bid was won by Detroit, and the Games eventually went to Mexico City. (As an aside, it's probably a good thing the Olympics didn't wind up in Detroit, which spent the summers of 1967 and 1968 embroiled in urban riots.)

Anyway, I have been reminded of Portland's once and former dreams the past two weeks as the Winter Olympics have been taking place in Sochi, Russia. And I have found myself pondering how those dreams could have transformed Vancouver, as well.

Portland's bid for the Olympics centered upon an 80,000-seat stadium to be built at Delta Park, with the athletes' village and the swimming/diving facilities nearby. Newly built Memorial Coliseum, at the time a state-of-the-art arena, would be used for events; rowing would be contested on the Willamette River.

The idea, as ludicrous as it sounds now, had plenty of support. As Fred Meyer himself (yes, he was a real person) told the Oregon Journal, as quoted in the blog cafeunknown.com: "If Portland wants to be the great metropolis of the Northwest … it should act like one." As The Oregonian wrote: "Putting on the Olympic Games would move our area years ahead in its development of housing, highways and countless other things not directly connected with sports. Just as the (1962) World's Fair has done for Seattle, the Games would show the world that Portland is a fresh and vigorous Western city, with energy and brains in its people to match the beauty of its physical setting."

Lessons still resonate

Which brings us to the lessons that still resonate from Portland's brief bout of big vision. You see, local residents turned down funding for the stadium in a close vote. After the proposal was reconfigured to turn the stadium into a dome, they voted it down again, and Portland's Olympic-sized dream was dead.

Meanwhile, a couple years later, Seattle approved the Kingdome, which attracted Major League Baseball in the form of the Mariners and the National Football League in the form of the Seahawks. It is entirely possible, if Portland residents had approved the Delta Dome, that this metropolis would be reveling in a Super Bowl victory right now instead of Seattle. It is entirely possible that the ethos of the region would have been transformed, turning it into the kind of place that gives birth to ideas such as Microsoft and Amazon and Starbucks.

That would have had a residual impact on Clark County. While Portland likely would look more like Seattle does today, Vancouver would have inherited the character that now defines Bellevue, with its tall buildings and thriving downtown.

There's no telling whether that would be good or bad. There's no telling the direction a city will travel once the wheels of what can be perceived as progress start rolling. But there's no question it would be different, and there's no question it would have relieved the area of its biggest headache.

For if a major stadium had been built 50 years ago at Delta Park, you can bet the Interstate 5 Bridge would have been replaced long ago. But that would have required some big dreams.