The Oregonian: Funding a dream in lean times
Author: Oregonian Editorial Board
Posted: June 29, 2011

An Oregon Sustainability Center, to be situated on campus at Portland State University, is no pipe dream.

The $59 million, 10-story structure would be the most ambitious building of its kind in the world, producing all the energy it needs on site and built of nontoxic materials while acting as a nexus of green business, energy and environmental research and development, and education. Its sponsoring partners are the Oregon University System, the city of Portland and the Portland Development Commission, and several nonprofit groups and private businesses.

Its other partner, while not involved in the vision, was to have been the Oregon Legislature.

But that changed this week, stunning the project's sponsors. A legislative subcommittee declined to back revenue bonds worth more than $37 million and essential to building the center. Now the university system and others, well along in design and poised to break ground early next year, will be asked for voluminous detail on how the center will generate enough revenue to repay the state-issued bonds -- and to return to seek the Legislature's approval for bonding in February.

The dream is not dead. And well it shouldn't be: The sustainability center is a bold conception that promises to create not only the jobs required to build it but hundreds of long-term jobs in a sector of the economy in which Oregon rightly claims leadership. Its promise will be fulfilled, moreover, only when the center becomes a first stop worldwide for sustainability-minded architects, designers and eco-managers.

But now it's time for some serious homework. Legislators today intend to release a budget note asking the sponsors for, among other things, a detailed financial and governance plan, an analysis of financial and technological risks that must be avoided to ensure success, and a plan that charts how the place could be self-sustaining if no more than a third of its rentable space were occupied by state of Oregon or Oregon University System offices.

That last one's a doozy, actually, because House co-Speaker Bruce Hanna, the Roseburg Republican, publicly worries that too much of the 150,000-square-foot building would be claimed by the university system, with Oregon taxpayers paying the rent that pays off the bonds. If the sustainability center is going to be such a glamorous draw, he asks, why wouldn't it create its own traffic in high-paying private sector tenants?

It might. But it is essential to remember that the center was never conceived as just another downtown office building offering competitive leases to tenants of all persuasions. It will be, and its advocates have correctly avoided selling it as otherwise, a prototype -- a never-been-done-here-before economic development project.

Yet that doesn't mean it gets to be a financial drain upon taxpayers. Sponsors should take the Legislature's balk this week as ample notice the project will go forward only when it shows itself to be as economically sustainable as it is environmentally.