Mark Hatfield

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."