PORTLAND, Ore. — After Portland leaders first revealed they would consider the Portland Expo Center as a possible Safe Rest Village site for RVs and people living in vehicles, some were surprised when the massive complex didn't make the initial list.
The Metro-owned venue, located just west of I-5 near the Columbia River, is surrounded by acres of parking lots. To many, it seemed like a no-brainer to use some of that space for homeless campers. But as other cities like Vancouver put plans in place to offer these "safe sleep" campsites, Portland has made little progress, despite support from Mayor Ted Wheeler, Metro President Lynn Peterson and Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan, who is taking charge of the city's Safe Rest Villages — none of which have opened.
"Those conversations died off about six months ago, but it's my understanding that [Ryan] and [Peterson] are in communications," Wheeler said in an interview earlier this month. "It's my hope they'll reach an amicable agreement and we'll be able to do that. It's really the perfect facility for it."
The Expo Center is the largest multipurpose facility in Oregon, boasting 53 acres of land and five exhibit halls. It has hosted quilt shows, gun shows and outdoorsman shows and will this summer host performances by Cirque du Soleil.
The city of Portland is proposing to use one or more back parking lots to allow unhoused people to park RVs and cars. The parking lots in question are mostly used for staging equipment.
Metro President Lynn Peterson said she supports the idea, but the final decision doesn't rest with her. The property is controlled by a commission called the Metropolitan Exposition and Recreation Commission (MERC), made up of volunteers appointed by the Metro council.
"They're a chartered commission to basically oversee the day-to-day operations of our venues, whether that be the Oregon Convention Center or the Expo Center," Peterson explained. "They actually have a separation of powers between the two. They sign their own contracts and they manage the assets. So that's why we wanted to make sure we were working with them, asking them directly, because this affects the ability of Expo to do business, and there is a lot of business going on there."
These "Safe Park" campsites aren't a new concept — Vancouver, Wash. successfully opened a Safe Parking Zone, and the city of Portland has cited examples of another similar site in Mountain Park, Calif.
But Peterson said MERC calls the shots on what the property is used for, and the commission has concerns.
"They did want to see if there would be an end point — how many years would that be there, what were the security measures that would need to be in place? They wanted insurances around that and visual impacts," Peterson said.
Commissioner Dan Ryan met with MERC commissioners Monday to try to sell them on the idea. During the meeting, which was held virtually, the city laid out its vision for Safe Rest Villages around the area, then zeroed in on how using the Expo property would be helpful during the homeless crisis.
Some commissioners voiced their concerns.
"We're just going to be very honest. There are a lot of stolen vehicles in Portland, okay? I have three on my block right now," said MERC commission chair Karis Stoudamire-Phillips. "So I'd really like to know how are we going to prevent that, how are we going to know? Are there going to be checks on making sure vehicles we are putting in the Safe Park village are not stolen vehicles?"
Another concern was the state of RVs that would be allowed into the lot, and what would happen if they broke down. All commissioners seemed concerned about how the visuals of the village and other camps that may pop up nearby would affect the shows already booked at the Expo Center.
"I have also noticed that there is often camping that immediately fills up in and around surrounding those areas. This could be a huge problem. Those roads that we're looking at have shows coming in and out," said commission member Deldra Krys-Rusoff. "If we have excess camping around that pops up over night, we have a show coming in, one of the things that I would want to see before we would enter into any kind of big serious discussion would be that there would be a dedicated service that would come in and help clear those folks to a more amenable location. And it would have to be 24/7. We have shows that come in very early in the morning, we cant have that liability or safety concern."
"I've been going to the Expo Center since I was a young child, when it was owned and operated by Multnomah County, when Multnomah County used to have the fair out there," MERC chair Stoudamire-Phillips said during an exchange with Commissioner Ryan. "So this is a place I've been going all my life. So it is very important to me that we make very sure we are doing all we can to keep the area economically prosperous, safe for all. And that is not just the charge of the commission, but personally something that I want to see happen too. So we do have concerns and we'll be able to have those conversations."
Commissioner Ryan acknowledged the importance of "selling Portland" and bringing conventions back to the city.
"I think its so important to realize — right at this moment, I'm more clear than ever — how we might be coming at this from different angles but we're on the same team to try to bring back that economic vitality to our region," Ryan said.