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Atkinson part of driving force trying to bring MLB to Portland

Jason Atkinson has never been afraid of tackling a challenge, in fact it’s what he says drives him.

For his most recent venture, Atkinson is facing as big of a challenge as they come but unflinchingly determined to win out in the end as a managing director for the Portland Diamond Project. The group was created about a year and a half ago with the vision of building a major-league ready ballpark in Portland to acquire a current Major League Baseball team or land a potential expansion franchise.

“What drives me in business is accomplishing big things and this is certainly a big, difficult project,” says Atkinson. “I like being involved in that. My partners have given me a tremendous amount of runway in all aspects of what we do. It’s really a terrific opportunity and I’m very, very fortunate to be part of it.”

To be more appropriate to Atkinson’s mindset, however, first you must replace all notions of obstacles in his pursuit as merely hurdles the Portland Diamond Project has yet to face and subsequently conquer.

If you’re going to accomplish big things, you must first dream big and remain steadfast in your convictions that it can be done — and Atkinson and company have that notion in spades.

“We’ve built a team and a team culture that wants to do big things,” says Atkinson, who served 14 years in the Oregon legislature as a Republican from Central Point. “This is the team to get it done.”

Leading the charge with Atkinson on the Portland Diamond Project has been founder/president Craig Cheek, a retired Nike executive, and fellow managing director Mike Barrett, who was the former Portland Trail Blazers announcer. Most recently, the group gained a boost when Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and celebrity musician wife Ciara came on board as investors and co-owners.

“It’s not simple, it’s very complicated and it requires a team of very talented professional people,” Atkinson says of one day placing an MLB franchise in Portland. “You’ve got to be unified about what the vision is to execute something big. That’s why I always tell people to bet on my team.”

“Everybody on our team is best in class,” he adds. “If you’re going to look at finance, we’re best in class. If you’re going to look at architecture, we’re best in class. Our group speaks very strategically with one voice — Mike Barrett — and our connectivity to the Major League Baseball Commissioner’s office and Major League Baseball community is rock solid.”

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has said expansion to 32 clubs will happen at some point, and the continued push by the Portland Diamond Project has left him to acknowledge that Portland is on that list.

“If we were going to go to 32, we would need a Western time zone team,” Manfred said recently in Seattle. “We’d need at least one more.”

Still, the frontrunners for any expansion franchise seem to be returning a team to Montreal and taking advantage of a fresh opportunity to expand the MLB market in Mexico City.

Manfred has also said issues with the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays in their push for new stadiums must be resolved before moving ahead with expansion, and therein lies the best immediate chance for a baseball-hungry area such as Portland.

That said, there’s also a concern that Portland could be used as stadium bait for Oakland and Tampa as they leverage their franchises into better stadium deals in their current locations.

However things play out moving forward, and Atkinson assures his group has irons in the fire on all fronts, the Portland Diamond Project is doing all it can now to create a welcoming venue with the belief that Major League Baseball in Oregon will play well.

“We are more than legitimate, we are a very important part of the conversation now nationally,” says Atkinson. “Our economic study shows that Portland and Oregon will be one of the best baseball states they could have. There’s a huge hunger for it and a huge hunger for how we’ve rolled it all out.”

“Portland, Oregon, rains the sixth least in the entire league (during the MLB season) so actually being in Portland in the summer is the perfect demographic and the growth pattern for Oregon is perfect as opposed to other major cities that have three or four major programs already.”

Building a stadium could cost as much as $1 billion, and the PDP has said buying land for a park will cost around $80 million. They have not said who is paying for the land or to build the stadium, and the plan also includes building 8,000 units of housing that would cost upward of $600 million.

In 2003, Oregon passed Senate Bill 5, which would allow a team that settles in Portland to use the income taxes players pay on their salaries while playing in Oregon to repay money borrowed for construction. Estimates say that could raise $150 million or more but certainly not enough to provide a lion’s share of funding.

“To pull off an enterprise like this takes an extreme amount of work on the finance side,” says Atkinson, who splits his time at his farm in Central Point and in a Portland apartment these days, “so half of my day is spent on the finance side of it, finding the right partners and building the right team. It’s complicated. I wouldn’t say growth is a hurdle but growth is something my team has to keep ahead of to keep that momentum and growth going.”

As for a ballpark site, Atkinson says the group is keeping its options open but feels like they’re close to narrowing in on the right location. The PDP placed an unsolicited $80 million bid on the Portland Public Schools district headquarters downtown that is being considered, and has also shown interest in a northwest Portland property owned by metal parts manufacturer ESCO Corp, but that site was sold two weeks ago and it’s unclear what that means moving forward for the PDP.

Atkinson says the plan would be to have the most intimate ballpark in the MLB system, seating around 34,000, with each seat as interactive and a shared experience as the other. He adds that the group remains on target for a plan to play by 2022.

“There’s a handful of sites that are in the mix and they all have pros and cons and all have different considerations for us,” says Atkinson. “Being such a big economic push into the region, we’re trying to make sure that all of our real estate options fit our timelines rather than the other way around.”

That said, the PDP has heard loud and clear from its supporters what they would prefer.

“We have a real big interest in making sure that fans see baseball hitting to the water,” adds Atkinson. “Our studies with our focus groups show that’s one thing the public wants, too.”

And if there is one thing Atkinson says he’s enjoyed along his current pursuit, it is the feedback received from those who appreciate what he and the PDP are doing.

“It’s an overwhelmingly positive reaction,” he says. “I cannot be in a restaurant anywhere in Oregon and not have somebody stop me and say, ‘Hey, we’re counting on you to get baseball here. Not anywhere in Oregon. I’m always humbled by that, so the reaction has been very positive and very, very personal.”

“People know me as a man of my word and I get involved in big projects and give my heart and soul to it until it’s done,” adds Atkinson. “It’s been very flattering for me to be treated with such respect and a sense of, ‘You better get this done.’”

At the end of the day, Atkinson sees Major League Baseball as something that can cut geographic, economic and political boundaries and just be appreciated for its historic hold as America’s pastime.

He wants that for Oregon, regardless if the ballpark is in your Portland backyard or you live in Southern Oregon, and is determined to make it happen.

“What I hope is someday when they turn on the television, they will see Oregon,” says Atkinson of his former constituents and current neighbors. “This will be the Oregon team and I think there’s always a certain amount of pride when kids from Southern Oregon pull big stuff off, and we’ve got a lot of Southern Oregon DNA in the Portland Diamond Project.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry.

Mail Tribune / Jamie LuschJason Atkinson with the Portland Diamond Project is trying to bring Major League Baseball to Portland.