Trade shows out, sporting events in at Portland Expo Center?
Consumer and trade shows could be replaced by sports in exhibition halls at North Portland facility
Large public consumer shows and spectator events are returning to the Portland Expo Center after more than three years of pandemic-related cancelations and attendance restrictions, pumping millions of dollars into the regional economy.
The two biggest recent gatherings were the Pacific Northwest Sportsman Show, held from Feb. 15-19 of this year, and the 67th Anniversary Portland Roadster Show, held from March 17-19. Both filled all five exhibit halls at the center, drawing big crowds from throughout the region.
“We had over 60,000 people come to the Sportsman Show,” said Trey Carskadon, a marketing executive with O’Loughlin Trade Shows, which is also once again producing its annual large-scale RV, boat and holiday shows at the center.
Duane Caseday, who produced the Roadster Show for the Multnomah County Hot Rod Council, does not yet know how many people showed up over the three days. But he said it was “a good gate” and is already preparing to produce the show at the center again next year.
But how much longer events like those will be held at the center is up in the air. Metro, the elected regional government that owns the center, is considering converting the North Portland facility into a sports and cultural complex — a potentially expensive project it discussed on Feb. 28 with the Metropolitan Exposition and Recreation Commission, which Metro appoints to manage the center and other large public facilities, including the Oregon Convention Center.
The idea is not new. Metro commissioned Hunden Strategic Partners for a 2014 study that found building sport-oriented facilities at the center would cost up to $65 million. A similar facility called The Podium that was completed in Spokane, Washington, in 2021 cost $53 million. During the Feb. 28 meeting, Metro and MERC agreed to update the 2014 study to determine the cost and viability of such a conversion now.
“When the Metro Council directed MERC and staff to find a new direction for Expo, we didn’t do this lightly. We knew that Expo was built on a 20th century business model and it wasn’t serving 21st century needs,” Metro Council President Lynn Peterson said in a statement released after the meeting.
According to Metro Major Projects Manager Paul Slyman, although consumer shows and similar events could still be held at the converted center, sporting events would be prioritized over them.
“The Expo Center would become a sports-centric destination. Primarily but not exclusively. Trade shows could still fill in gaps when it is otherwise not in use, but the focus would be primarily on sport and sports-related activities,” Slyman told the Portland Tribune.
Carskadon feels betrayed by the decision. He had supported a proposal for such a conversion submitted to Metro by ASM Global, which bills itself as the world’s leading venue management company. The organization’s executives had assured Carskadon that trade shows and sporting events could both routinely be held at the converted center with their management. Although Metro councilors praised the thrust of the ASM Global proposal at the meeting, they did not approve it. Afterward, Metro said trade shows and similar events would continue to be held at the center through 2024, but did not commit to them beyond that.
“There is no other facility in the Pacific Northwest that is large enough to hold the Sportsman Show. We can’t just wait and see if they can fit it in. We need to be assured of the center’s availability years in advanced for all the vendors can arrange to come,” said Carskadon.
Dave Nielsen, CEO of the Home Building Association of Greater Portland, is also concerned but more hopeful about the future of the center. His organization stages the large annual Spring and Fall Home and Garden Shows that are again coming back there.
“I have to say the situation still seems to be fluid. Some shows might be ousted, but others could still be accommodated with proper management,” Nielsen said.
The most recent Home and Garden Show was held from Feb. 23 to 26. Although it snowed on the first two days and roads remained hazardous until the end of the show, Nielsen said around 10,000 people attended it.
Metro says it needs to reevaluate and change the operation of the center for two reasons. First, although the previous and current events generate enough revenue to pay the bills there, they are not providing Metro with enough money for deferred maintenance. The 53-acre campus includes exhibit halls totaling over 333,000 square feet and 10 meeting rooms and a large parking lot. The biggest looming expense is the replacement of three exhibit halls at that are over 100 years old and lack modern heating and cooling systems.
Before the pandemic, Metro said the center attracted nearly 500,000 visitors a year to over 100 consumer shows and community events, creating an economic impact of more than $47 million annually. It is unclear what the impact is now, however. Metro has not produced an annual report on the center since 2018.
According to Slyman, the pivot to sports is intended to leverage Oregon’s athletic, outdoor, team and recreation ecosystem — defined as including sports and apparel companies, as well as internationally known professional sport franchises, sporting-related events, recreation and tourism activities. A report released in June 2022 highlighted opportunities to boost the economy by promoting more events.
“Oregon State of Sport” was commissioned by the Portland Business Alliance, Greater Portland, Inc., and Sports Oregon, a nonprofit sports advocacy organization. It found Portland, Eugene and Bend were uniquely positioned to create more events and related jobs.
“Bringing out-of-state events to Oregon and creating new ones here will provide tremendous benefits to the economy,” Sports Oregon External Affairs Director Nathan Nayman told the Portland Tribune.
Metro also wants to honor three communities tied to the history of the location: the indigenous tribes that originally lived on the land; the Japanese Americans who were housed in the former stockyard there before being shipped off to internment camps at the beginning of World War II; and the residents of Vanport, the former city with a large Black population that was adjacent to the center and was wiped out by a flood on Memorial Day in 1948.
Other proposals submitted but not yet approved by Metro included: the creation of an Oregon Black Heritage Museum (Oregon Black Pioneers, Salem); the establishment of “an intentional equitable redevelopment that promotes well-being and improves the mobility and quality of life for our community, especially those communities harmed by a shameful history on the EXPO site” (Specht-Colas Partnership, Portland); and the construction of “a permanent interpretive center that focuses on the history of forced displacements on this site, Indigenous Communities, the Japanese American Community and the Vanport Community” (Vanport Mosaic, Portland).
Slyman said the feasibility study could be released by fall. If Metro and MERC agree to go forward with such a conversion, the next step will be figuring out how to pay for it.
“It will most likely require a public-private partnership to succeed,” Slyman said.
Jim Redden is a reporter based in Portland, Ore.