The Portland Trail Blazers recently announced that they’re going to start a new NBA G League team for young players. The minor league affiliate team will play at the University of Portland’s Chiles Center. We’ll sit down with Dewayne Hankins, the president of business operations for the Blazers, to talk about the new team and the future of the franchise as a whole.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. A new basketball team is coming to Portland. The Trail Blazers recently announced they’re going to create a team for the NBA G League. It is for young players who hope to make it to the biggest arenas in basketball. Portland’s new team is gonna play at the University of Portland’s Chiles Center. Dewayne Hankins is the president of business operations for the Blazers. He joins us to talk about this new team and the future of the franchise more broadly. Thanks very much for coming in.
Dewayne Hankins: Thanks for having me, Dave.
Miller: For people who aren’t familiar with it, what’s the point of the G League?
Hankins: Much like minor league baseball, I think you have minor league basketball, and the NBA over the last, I think, 10 years has really gotten really excited about the G League and the opportunities for young players to develop there and really start to make a career for themselves. You’ve seen their G League Ignite team, for instance, which is a team that is comprised of really high end prospects. You’ve seen the team get made in Mexico City. And so for us, it was really an opportunity for us to take the next step towards winning championships. If we can develop players in our own backyard [and] they can play with the big team, that helps us.
And then further, just the opportunity to have it in Portland at the University of Portland, as you said at the Chiles Center, which we think is going to be a rocking arena for the team. And it’s gonna create an opportunity for family-friendly and affordable fun for folks to go check out. And then finally, just the excitement around developing our own staff, so much like the players, it would be great to do that, of course, but if we can develop staff who get their repetitions at that level and then can come on and work for the Blazer staff.
Miller: So like a video coordinator could start at the Chiles Center or with the as yet unnamed G League team, and then maybe if they prove themselves, they can move up and go to the Blazers.
Hankins: Yeah, absolutely. Think of a trainer, or a video coordinator, or someone in marketing, or someone that sells tickets for the franchise. Yeah, there’s certainly that opportunity. The additional thing that’s exciting about us, is it can be a bit of a test ground for us. So let’s say our basketball side wants to try crashing four guys on rebounds every play. Well, you can try that in the G League with less risk than you could at the NBA team. And for us on the business group, it’s ‘okay, how can we sell tickets only digitally?’ Like if we wanted to take that approach, could we do that? And if it works, take those principles and bring them on to the big leagues.
Miller: How would you convince the best players coming out of high school to go to any G League team, your new one or any other one as opposed to going to Duke or UNC or whoever?
Hankins: So the way that the league rules work for that, they would not be eligible for us to take them out of high school. The league is finalizing the CBA right now. The draft age will still stay at 19. The G League Ignite team is the only team that’s allowed by the NBA’s rules to have players that would be able to play in that league. So for us, it’s just a matter of are these guys one year out of college or wherever they did their schooling, and then they’re 19. So they wouldn’t have to choose between Duke and us.
Miller: Okay, but they would be deciding then between staying at Duke for a couple more years, at where it’s still fair to say a lot more people are paying attention to the NCAA finals, than G League teams right now, right? And so what’s the incentive for players to go pro earlier, at a lower level?
Hankins: That makes sense. It’s more games, right? There’s 50 games in the G League season. So more opportunity in our instance, and in other instances around the league. You’re getting to practice with NBA players pretty regularly and the exposure is unmatched. Certainly, you’re not playing in crowded coliseums like you do in around Duke in North Carolina, but you are getting the opportunity to play it probably at a higher level than we’re seeing in college.
Miller: Why the Chiles Center, why the University of Portland? Why not, for example, find some place on the west side, closer to the practice facility?
Hankins: I think for us, we’ve had a great partnership with the University of Portland over the last few years. We’ve had tournaments there. They have been part of our arena, and a really great partnership. And it’s just coincided being so close to our practice facility where our games are, that allows the team to practice with the G League team. And for us just really putting our roots down in Portland, obviously. We’ve been here 52 years, the fans love this team and it really presents another opportunity for fans to go and see games. Maybe at a lower level, but to get to see our players as they develop right in our backyard.
Miller: Can you give us any sense of what the name is gonna be?
Hankins: We’re down to some finalists, but I can’t.
Miller: Do you have a favorite right now?
Hankins: I do and I can’t say it in case it’s the right one.
Miller: How do you keep fans engaged in a team that, by its nature, it’s gonna have more turnover than the average NBA team?
Hankins: The exciting part with this is, our fans especially and we feel so lucky to have them, they just really get into the young players and the prospects, right? So if you think about Anfernee Simons, who’s now really burgeoned. He’s 23 years old. He’s made a name for himself, but if you’d got to follow along his career, he was a first round pick. Hey, we’re gonna go see this first round pick, play at the University of Portland. Let’s see how he plays as you get your first look at him. And playing meaningful minutes because if you draft someone in the first round, they’re probably playing 30, 40 minutes a game. Where if they have to play with the Blazers, they might not see much playing time. So it’s an exciting opportunity for them.
Miller: So you think that it’s kind of player based, that the serious fans are going to pay attention to your drafts and to get excited about seeing these potential future Blazers early on.
Hankins: Yeah, absolutely. And again, get to see high quality basketball at a certainly more affordable price for anyone that would want to come.
Miller: It’s very possible that Portland is going to get a WNBA team, a professional women’s basketball team. Did that play into your decision to start a G League team?
Hankins: It didn’t play into that decision. Our decision on G League was really, Joe and I, our GM who makes all the basketball decisions, really wanted to push forward and make our team better, right? Both from the business and basketball side. So that was really the push and the focus and with our owner, Jody Allen’s blessing, we were able to deliver that vision for Portland. WNBA [is] very separate, obviously plays in the summer. We’ve been really involved in trying to help bring them the team because we’d love to have it, obviously down in the Rose Quarter. So we’re excited about it, but not aligned yet.
Miller: The reason I’m asking is I’m just wondering if what you see as a ceiling for like, total basketball fandom in the area? And it’s not that these teams are necessarily going to be playing at the same time, but we have the potential of three professional basketball teams right in Portland within five years, say. How many ticket buyers are there in the Portland area?
Hankins: I think it’s what’s the phrase of, “A high tide rises all boats.” Whether that’s basketball teams, soccer teams, baseball teams certainly have been talked about. More sports fans I think is better for our entire business, right? And so for us there’s certainly different games for different fans, and different demographics for different events. And we view it as not real competition, but just building love for the sport and for sports in general.
Miller: You took part not too long ago in a press conference for a potential WNBA team. The commissioner of that league was there, Ron Wyden, who loves to talk about the fact that he was a basketball player, a while ago. And others were there. If you were a betting person, do you think that we are going to have a WNBA team in Portland?
Hankins: I feel really good about it. I think that Portland is a really strong market for a lot of reasons. One, you’ve seen it with the Thorns, you’ve seen the support for women’s sports. We, on our own, have the 2030 Final Four for the women that’s coming to Moda Center. So there is that motivation I think that’s there. I think the NBA is probably looking at some other interesting markets, but I don’t think you’ll find more fandom than you will here in Portland compared to the other markets. And you won’t find an ownership group that’s more excited than the one that’s bringing it here. So that makes me feel like it’s a good bet.
Miller: We’ve been talking so far largely about people buying tickets and going to the games, but more people can watch games on TV. Last week, the Phoenix Suns and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury announced that all of their games next season are going to be available on broadcast television, meaning fans will not have to pay for streaming or cable to watch their teams play. What went through your mind when you saw that?
Hankins: Yeah, I thought it was a great deal for their fans, for the Suns. I think that the
RSN industry has been really challenged over the last -
Miller: Is that Regional Sports Network?
Hankins: Yeah, Regional Sports Network, [they] have been really challenged over the last few years. You’ve seen it with Diamond/Sinclair, who had their teams all go into bankruptcy. Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns another handful of these channels, is not wanting to operate them anymore. So I think teams are having to kind of go back in time a little bit to a different era when they were watching, when they were broadcasting their games over the air. And that can only be good for the fan. The more ability to watch the game, the better.
Miller: We are, I should say you are, in the middle of a four year deal with ROOT SPORTS, which is the opposite of broadcast television. It means that Blazers fans have to spend $70, $80, $90 a month to watch their favorite team play on TV. Can you imagine, when this deal is done, going broadcast television?
Hankins: I think there’s certainly the opportunity for that. We will look at all courses of action and make the best decision. We’ve had a really great partnership with ROOT, to be honest, it’s a station that’s primarily actually owned by the Seattle Mariners. The core values that come from that organization are really about sports and focused on sports, and they’ve done a great job. I know it’s cable TV but I think their ability to have our games back on satellite, which we had missed for so many years, to have them on cable, [and] to have some streaming choices available has been good. It’s not all the way there, obviously, we’d always like to see more fans watch the games, but I will say that they’ve been a really great partner on that.
Miller: What’s the value for you of having more people be able to watch your games, whether it’s streaming or broadcast TV or whatever, but not have to pay that money, meaning, I can just imagine what people are going to watch. So that on the one hand, more people watching, maybe becoming Blazers fans. On the other hand, maybe getting more money in a deal, because there’s exclusivity involved. How do you think about those two sides, from the business perspective?
Hankins: That is a fantastic question and something that we rattle around in our business offices, almost every day.
Miller: Wait, so when you’re rattling around that question, what are you actually saying to each other? What are you asking yourselves?
Hankins: I think it’s how much do you want to put things behind a paywall? That’s ultimately what you’re getting at. And so for us, the ability for fans to watch the games sort of everywhere, that comes with probably a lower dollar amount that the team would receive and we think there’s a value to that. Or do you take the check and put it behind a paywall? And that’s the crux of the conversation that we talk about.
Miller: I mean, there’s so many ways to think about it, right? Because, is it possible that if more people become fans, more eight year-olds are watching with their parents, they would want to buy more jerseys, they would want to see games in person? I mean, how do you game this out?
Hankins: Yeah, that’s a lot of the analysis that we try to do. and I think as those checks from the Regional Sports Network become smaller and smaller, the decision just gets easier to make. And that might-
Miller: Or if they go out of business, if they go bankrupt, it’s easy to say let’s go to broadcast.
Hankins: Exactly. Right.
Miller: Fair enough, but that seems like you’re not really making a decision at that point. You’re just saying, well, the world has changed, we will respond to it.
Hankins: Yeah. And it’s hard to know, I can’t speak to what the Suns have done in that situation. But that’s the gambit, right.
Miller: I want to turn to some other recent news. Last week, Nike co-founder Phil Knight announced the creation of a new $400 million fund to help Black Portlanders in a place-based way, focused on the exact neighborhood where the Moda Center is. The only reason the Moda Center - this is a history you know and many of our listeners know at this point - the only reason that Memorial Coliseum is there and the Moda Center and I-5 is because entire neighborhoods were razed in the name of urban renewal. All of which is the history, that’s part of this effort. What went through your mind when you heard about this new fund?
Hankins: Yeah, it’s a historic investment in Portland’s east side that’s gonna help revitalize that area, especially its Black population. So exciting for us.
Miller: It’s not the first time that people have been talking about this, including people [like] former Blazer president Larry Miller, who was a part of this 1803 Fund. Why do you think nothing big has happened in the Rose Quarter for more than a decade?
Hankins: I mean, I would go back to even the last 30 years, there really hasn’t been anything that’s happened at The Rose Quarter. I don’t know, to be honest. You’ve seen these thriving sort of stadium districts pop up around these arenas. I think we’ve in our past our organization, prior to me getting there, has laid out visions for ideas of what that neighborhood could look like. And it just hasn’t really… I mean, again, the history that you mentioned, that you had a guest on your show earlier this week that talked about that, I think there’s just a lot there for folks to have to consider. So it really just hasn’t been something that’s gotten a lot of momentum.
Miller: What’s your vision for what The Rose Quarter could be?
Hankins: We view ourselves as the state’s top gathering place. If you think about the amount of games, the amount of concerts that happen there, the array of concerts that happen there, we have shows now and across a diverse set and you can always find a reason to come down to The Rose Quarter. So we kind of view ourselves as that. We’d love for the surrounding area to reflect the diversity of the content that goes on in that building and would love to see a future that looks like that. And as we’ve talked about, having the women’s Final Four in 2030, hopefully trying to push to get an NBA all-star game at some point would really help revitalize Portland in a way that would be phenomenal. But yeah, it all starts with that neighborhood.
Miller: Do you envision a future where people are going there in numbers? So to the district in numbers, even when Lizzo is not performing, or even when there isn’t a Final Four or a Blazers game. Because that to me seems to be the big question, you can draw people for big draws, but what about when that’s not happening?
Hankins: That’s the goal, right? You don’t ever want that area to be sort of a ghost town when there’s not an event going down there. So for that to be a thriving community, 365 days a year, regardless of an event would be fantastic.
Miller: I mentioned twice, you are the president of Business Operations. You are not the
GM. So you’re limited in what you can say, but listeners would be annoyed if I didn’t ask you the following questions. Anyway, Damian Lillard. He had an extraordinary year as an individual player and even partly because of that, the clock is ticking even louder to either build a team around him that can win a championship - or have a really good chance of doing that - or break Oregon’s collective heart and trade him because he’s so valuable and because he, maybe would want to be traded. From a business perspective, how do you think about this? How do you factor in the communal love for a franchise defining player like Damian Lillard?
Hankins: I mean, it goes beyond that. The community love for him is fantastic to begin with and in all my years in working in sports, it’s been 20 plus, there’s never been an athlete that I’ve worked with that is more unbelievable both on and off the court than Damian is. He’s incredible, what he does in the community is incredible. Our goal is to show Damian as much loyalty as he’s shown us, which is [to] build a team around him, really have that opportunity. He signed a massive new contract last year that many in the media I think felt like, ‘Well, what are you doing, he’s on his downward trajectory,’ and then he went and had the best season he’s ever had, including that 71 point performance. So for us as on business side, he does so much for our organization that it’s hard to even quantify.
Miller: Luck plays a big role in all of our lives, we don’t know what will happen when we walk out of this building right now. But business wise, when Fortune 500 companies put together their strategic plans, I would be very surprised if those plans are contingent on whether or not the company literally wins a lottery. But your business is so odd and so different. What’s it like to have something that could impact the franchise in gigantic ways, for a decade or more, be literally dependent on the order in which tumbling ping pong balls come out of a box? I’m talking about the NBA draft, which is happening in just two weeks.
Hankins: Yeah, that’s so funny to think about it that way.
Miller: Do you not think about it?
Hankins: No, I do, I mean, every day, every game, right? You go to a game, you do all you can to prepare. And so does our basketball department, you do all you can to prepare to have an unbelievable event. The lines are open, the hot dogs are fresh, everything’s ready to go, and then the game happens and it just happens -
Miller: And someone breaks their ankle.
Hankins: Yeah, there’s not a script. So the ping pong balls are just another version of that.
Miller: So, in other words, that goes back, I guess, to like the long preamble to my question, you’re saying life is just full of stuff you can’t control and in your case, it’s embodied in ping pong balls.
Hankins: And well, I would say, what other industry do we work in where you want more work and more games, right? So we make the playoffs. If we make the playoffs, we want to keep playing for two more months and have all our employees work hard for two more months to end up in a championship. And I think what we do on the business side is we prepare as best we can for every scenario. And when you get into those moments where you win the lottery or you win a championship or you’re on your path towards winning a championship, what do you do as a business to make sure you really do that the right way because the stage gets bigger and you’ve got to be ready to perform.
Miller: And what happens if the 10 point, whatever, 4% chance -
Miller: 10.5! Sorry, I took 0.1 away from you. 10.5% chance of getting a once in a generation French phenom whose wings are 20 ft wide or something? How do you think about what that would mean for the franchise?
Hankins: You see it in other markets all the time, right. The opportunity to get that number one pick and the amount of excitement that it creates in the city among our fans, we’ve done this unfortunately not too long ago in 2007, I believe, with Mr. Odden. So there was a lot -
Miller: It’s not a great history of quote, unquote, “winning the lottery” in terms of just bad stuff happening.
Hankins: Yeah, exactly. And again, that’s where you take it… Greg was, I mean, I wasn’t here but [it’s] him or Durant, right. It could have been, could have flipped a coin. In fact, I think we had some campaign, the “Honk Once for Odden, Twice for Durant,” or something. And that was another set of ping pong balls in the way all that turned out.
Miller: Our executive producer, Sage Van Wing has helpfully told me it’s not a 20-foot wingspan, it’s an 8-foot wingspan, which is so mind boggling that it might as well be 20. And he can shoot threes as well and he can run and he’s agile.
You mentioned hot dogs and fans lining up. When you go to a game, when you walk around the Moda Center or maybe even some other arena if you’re on the road, what are you paying attention to in addition to what’s happening on the court?
Hankins: The fan experience completely. How long are people waiting in lines, are their lines for the bathroom? How’s the temperature in the building? Are people getting what they need in a quick fashion? Are fans being kind to each other? And it happens in every arena everywhere I go, because for us it’s really about the fans and their excitement and wanting to come back. To your point, it’s really easy to sit on your couch and watch the game, so what are we doing to bring people to our games and to our events, to make sure they’re having an excellent time there. It’s something we’re totally focused on.
Miller: Can you enjoy going to an event somewhere, if this is what you’re thinking about?
Hankins: It’s so funny, yeah, sometimes. My wife loves to go to Timbers games and I do too, it’s just-
Miller: It sounds like you’re being dragged there.
Hankins: Your brain… I love The Timbers and Thorns and we go and it’s just… But your brain, you’re just kind of at work, right? You’re just kind of thinking, ‘well over that line, I wonder what they could do to fix this,’ you’re just always kind of looking for things. I got into this industry because I love sports and I grew up loving sports and my first memories are of my dad taking me to a baseball game, but when you work for this long -
Miller: It’s a business to you.
Hankins: Yeah, it becomes a business.
Miller: Dewayne Hankins, thank you very much and I look forward to talking to you again.
Hankins: Thank you for having me.
Miller: Dewayne Hankins is the president of business operations for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The Gem Theatre in Athena in northeastern Oregon has lived many lives. It was a saloon and a theater and a store and even a bomb shelter and then it closed and was empty for 55 years. Then about 20 years ago, a group of local residents, including many students, started working on it. Through the great recession and the pandemic, they have toiled away and have raised more than $2 million to bring the theater back to its former glory. They are finally nearing the finish line. Earlier this month, they received a grant from the Port of Umatilla that will get them closer. Rob Mcintyre is a project manager for the theater’s restoration, and he is the music department in the Weston-McEwen School District. Elsa Rogers is a senior at Weston-McEwen High School who has been volunteering for the project since she was in the fifth grade. They both join me now. It’s great to have both of you on the show.
Elsa Rogers: Great to be here.
Rob Mcintyre: Yeah, it’s wonderful to be here.
Mcintyre: I’m pinching myself.
Miller: [laughs] You’re pinching yourself?
Miller: All right. It is very, very real. As is this building that you’ve dedicated so much time and effort and money into. It was first constructed in 1901, and I gave just a few words of its history. Can you give us a sense for what this building has been over the course of its life?
Mcintyre: Well, it was a theater beginning in 1909, and it remained a theater until the Great Depression closed at the first time. Then it sat vacant and ironically there was an attempt in the community to start a volunteer effort to revitalize it; this was in about 1936. That didn’t grow any legs, so it was purchased by a businessman from Eastern Oregon who had a string of small theaters in little towns around here. He renovated it, and it was a theater again, then became the Gem Theatre, and it would be open until 1968. Then it began sitting vacant again, and for the last 40 years, in particular, it really went into decline. It was just sort of locked up and forgotten about, I’m sorry to say.
Miller: What have you heard perhaps from longtime residents about what it was like when it was a theater? I mean, have you heard people’s memories about going there as kids, say?
Mcintyre: I have memories of this building that go back to 1915. When we started this, we had a lady in town who lived to be 106 and lived her whole life here. She actually dated the projectionist when it was a silent film theater and remembered watching Charlie Chaplin in here in 1915. The films arrived in those days by train. She told a story, a really good story, about one day the train was late, and all the patrons of the theater went to the train station, met the film and then accompanied it down here. So, yeah, a lot of wonderful stories. And then from the 50s and 60s, there are still a lot of people living in town who remember having their first date here, for example.
Miller: Did that woman who dated the projectionist get to watch free from the booth?
Mcintyre: Yeah, she did actually. The booth though… in those days there was no balcony, so that she had to climb up a ladder into a crow’s nest, the way she described it.
Miller: Huh.. And then it closed down and then reopened and then closed down for half a century. What was it like when you first stepped inside and thought about renovating it? Can you give us a sense for what it looked like at that point after it had been closed for so long?
Mcintyre: We looked for dead bodies, to be honest.
Miller: Did you find any?
Mcintyre: No, fortunately there were no dead bodies. But, in the basement in particular, there were sheets of cobwebs that were floor to ceiling. The first time I went in there, I was thinking about Indiana Jones. You know that scene where, you know, ‘Señor, spiders. Señor.’ I was thinking along those lines.
Miller: Were you also thinking immediately, ‘Ah, this is something I should spend 20 years of my life on’?
Mcintyre: Well, the 20 years part I never thought of. I didn’t think that it would take us this long. But, to be honest… I’ve been with the school district since the fall of 2000. When I applied for this job, I asked about this building in the job interview. So this was something that I always thought that I would do. I thought that my life experience was such that I was just sort of, this was a natural event for me – something that would be a lifetime project.
Miller: Why? What was it about your life experiences that made you think that?
Mcintyre: I could talk for an hour. Elsa is already raising her eyebrows at me. [laughter] We could talk for an hour about this. I grew up with a group of people who built a summer camp in the Idaho mountains, and it was almost all built by volunteers. These were people that came out of the Great Depression and World War II. They were that generation. I grew up with these people, and I watched them do this thing. I thought how wonderful it would be if I could spearhead a project like that. Of course, I’m an arts instructor, and in small towns we never have access to the arts. As far as facility especially, we’re very short handed. So this just seemed like a natural fit for me.
Miller: All right. Elsa, Rob mentioned that you’re rolling your eyes at him, which is something… [laughs] Before we started talking he had said, if he talks too long just hit him. And you said you don’t want to hit him. And I said you could roll your eyes. So that’s what you were doing. I mentioned you were in fifth grade when you started volunteering to work on this. What did you do as a fifth grader?
Rogers: I did a lot of different stuff. I’ve helped with all kinds of things on the building. Mostly, I guess ‘kid friendly’ work, in air quotes. I did a lot of painting. I helped with pointing brick, laying floorboards… We’d get a little group of the kids together and haul like one sheet of drywall, whatever we could do. It was just such a fun way to spend a Saturday. Especially when you’re a kid, you don’t have a lot of experience in the world. You know, I didn’t know anything about volunteering or anything. This was just something fun to do with my friends. But now looking back on it, it was such a valuable experience for me to come down here and see that the work I was doing was having some kind of effect, that the labor I was putting in was having results.
Miller: So what started as a kind of fun thing, over time it started to feel more significant.
Rogers: Yeah. It’s been really meaningful, now in my senior year of high school, to come down here and see how far the project has come. I mean, this project is almost as old as I am. I think it’s actually probably older than me. I’m 18 now. I don’t know, just at this really strange time in my life of being a senior in high school and coming down here to see how far it’s come. It means a lot to know that I was so involved in the project for so many years. And now, as I kind of get ready to jump the nest of my hometown, I see that this is gonna be something I can leave behind.
Miller: Are you in the building right now?
Rogers: Yeah, we’re on the stage.
Miller: Well, can you describe, Elsa, what it looks like right now?
Rogers: Right now, Mr. Mac and I are sitting on the stage looking out at where the seating in the theater is going to be. We’re looking up at the marquee-style lights on the balcony and the fresh green paint on the back of the room. The little exit sign that’s above the door is bright red. There’s fresh carpet in the back of the room and along the aisle, between where the seats will be. There’s no seats in here quite yet, but it’s pretty easy to see where they’ll go.
Miller: How much of what you’ve just described – the paint and the carpet and the balcony, all of that. How much did you have a hand in fixing up or creating or re-creating?
Rogers: Full honesty, not too much in this room. I did a lot in more of the Star Saloon space and up where the Hodaka Museum is going to be. But…
Mcintyre: You painted in here. And you helped move…
Rogers: I did paint in here.
Mcintyre: Yeah, and she helped move all the drywall. There’s 924 sheets of drywall in this building. It was all moved by kids, and it was all hung by volunteers – every piece of it.
Miller: Rob, what was your pitch? How did you get – from fifth graders on up, community members – how did you get hundreds of people to participate in this?
Mcintyre: Well, the hundreds came over a period of years. Mostly these were kids from my band classes. They had a tendency to be more of the younger kids than the older kids. The older kids, our band kids, they’re involved in everything. They get to high school and they’re doing double, triple duty in school, covering all these different bases because that’s just the kind of kids they are. But, 13- 14- 12- 11-year-olds, very, very, very active.
Miller: And easier to trick them into thinking it’s fun to move drywall.
Mcintyre: Well, to be honest, the high school band moved most of the drywall.
Miller: [laughing] Okay.
Mcintyre: Now they did it during class. I had permission to bring the band down here, and we just did it. Two units at a time. We had to stage it. It had to be moved up three floors in some cases. So you had a crew on the first floor, a crew on the second floor, a crew on the third floor, and you just passed it up.
Miller: A fireman’s brigade of drywall for people who weren’t playing trombone at the time.
Mcintyre: Well, it’s cooperative learning, I guess is how I’m gonna pitch it as an educator.
Miller: [laughing] Okay.
Mcintyre: Collaboration is a big part of being in a music group. It just is, and so we were collaborating on the space where they will perform and where their siblings will perform and where their children will perform.
Miller: You really think about this in a kind of generational way – that the space that you and members of the community have been working on recreating, that this is something that generations after will be able to use.
Mcintyre: I hope it lasts 100 years. We have a time capsule in here that we’ve said, ‘You can open it in 100 years.’
Miller: What did you all put in that time capsule? And my understanding is you put it inside one of the walls?
Miller: What’s in it?
Mcintyre: Sure. It started out with kind of an inside joke. You know, when you start something like this, I suppose in any community, you’re gonna have your critics, the people who say, ‘Well, that’s just crazy. You’re never gonna be able to do that.’ We had them here, and we tolerated it because we didn’t really have any choice. But we have a skeleton in the wall whose name is Dr. No. He represents everybody who ever said, ‘You’ll never get this done.’ He kind of hung out in the cavity for a couple of years. We’d walk by and see him with the sign around his neck that said, ‘This is the old person that said we’d never get this done’ and it would just kind of spur us on a little bit. But, we put… oh there’s TigerScot – [mascot of] our local school – there’s TigerScot in there. There’s newspapers. There’s Hodaka motorcycle items. It’s quite a collection.
Rogers: Yeah, they’re the poster I made of him and hung in the band room rolled up in there.
Mcintyre: Yeah, she tried to make me look like a cross between Bill Murray and a dictator of some sort. [laughter] But, yeah, there’s one of those in there.
Rogers: No, no, it’s based on Obama’s campaign posters of him that say ‘Hope’ underneath, except we used an image of Mac and stylized it…
Mcintyre: Okay, you need to remember this is a political free zone, also.
Miller: You’ve both mentioned Hodaka a few times. For people who aren’t familiar with it, what is Hodaka and what’s the connection to Athena?
Mcintyre: In the 1960s, there was a group of wheat– this is wheat country of course, so there were a group of wheat farmers who formed a co-op. They were shipping a lot of their wheat to Japan, including apparently contracting with the actual freighters, the boats that would deliver this wheat. They didn’t have a product to return to the United States with, so the boats were coming back empty. They decided – I think this is kind of the spirit of Athena in so many ways – that they were going to create a solution to this. They had the motorcycle parts engineered here in Athena by the PABATCO Company [Pacific Basin Trading Company]. The parts were manufactured in Japan. When the boats returned from Japan, they returned with all the pieces of the motorcycles, which were then assembled here in Athena, and they were branded as Hodaka motorcycles. This is now a classic American dirt bike.
Miller: And there’s gonna be some kind of a museum commemorating this history in the theater?
Mcintyre: In the Star Saloon.
Miller: Which adjoins the theater.
Mcintyre: Right. We have a lot of space here. We always look for layers, different ways that we can utilize the facility because we want to have people in it.
Miller: You mentioned that you have that skeleton who is now literally just sealed up in one of the walls. ‘Dr. No,’ who represented local residents who thought that you were…
Miller: …out of your mind, crazy, for doing this. What have you heard from that segment of the population as you’ve gotten closer and closer to actually realizing your dream?
Mcintyre: It’s gotten awfully quiet, to be honest. Some of them are now supporters of the project, which we’re grateful for. I’m sure there’s still some criticism out there. It’s just gotten very quiet. I don’t hear it anymore.
Miller: Elsa, what’s kept you going, doing this for seven years?
Rogers: I wanna see it finished. I’ve had Mr. Mac as my band teacher since I was in fifth grade. We’re always hearing about what’s going on with the theater, how the project’s going. I, myself, feel pretty invested in it even though I don’t volunteer quite as much as I used to. And I’m just so excited to see it done. I think it’s gonna be a fantastic space for our community. I’m so excited to bring some art into our tiny little town. I think it’s just gonna be amazing when it’s finished, and I can’t wait.
Miller: Rob, what is the timeline right now? What’s left to do, and how much money and how much physical work will that entail?
Mcintyre: Well, I’m glad you put it that way because people used to ask me, ‘When are you gonna be done?’ I would take the bait, and I was obviously wrong because we’re still sitting here. But we’ve also weathered a few crises in the world. We’re getting ready to put the seats in. That’s gonna happen over the summer. We’ve got some handrails to put in. There’s some painting left to do. We’re gonna go for our occupancy permit probably in June; I believe it will be June. And I have to raise some money for the stage equipment.
We have all the pieces in the wall, all the conduit runs and the design and all that work’s done. But this is expensive equipment, and it’s the last piece. I tried earlier on to get a head start on raising the money for that, but I think it was kind of abstract because we were still drywalling the building at the time. Then we had the pandemic. So, right now, I’ve got to raise a couple of $100,000 for that equipment. But, once we have that blessed resource, we could be done in under a month because most of that is just bringing the specialists in here to install that equipment. Then we can plan our grand opening.
Miller: What do you want that grand opening to be? What are your dreams for that evening?
Mcintyre: Okay. This is where I start having a hard time talking without falling apart; I will warn you about that. We have about a 208-seat auditorium here, with the seats installed. I would love to say we’re gonna have everybody here who’s had a hand in this. We wouldn’t be able to fit them all in the room at the same time. But it’s gonna be a collection of the people who’ve made this happen. There’s a lot of us, and… Yeah, they’ll be here. Somehow I’ll stand up on this stage, and we’ll dedicate this space, this sacred space to the arts, and somehow I’ll manage to not fall apart. I will probably have to be medicated just a little bit, Elsa, to be honest.
Miller: What’s wrong with falling apart?
Mcintyre: There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just when you have an agenda, and you’re trying to talk, and you can’t get the words out because you’re choked up. I’ve already been there once describing this project. When we closed up that wall with Dr. No, I wrote a letter. I still can’t read it. I wrote it, but I can’t read it.
Miller: Elsa, I saw a picture of a band that you are in, on the stage. Have you already played on that stage?
Rogers: We were able to come down last week. We marched our little high school band down here, with some chairs set up on the stage, and we were able to play a couple pieces from our band folder in this space. We played some Michael Jackson and a Lady Gaga selection, and it was amazing. It was so much fun.
Miller: Elsa Rogers and Rob Mcintyre, thank you so much for joining us. It was a pleasure talking to you, and I wish you the best of luck in finishing up this project of love.
Rogers: Thank you.
Mcintyre: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure being with you today.
Miller: Likewise. Rob Mcintyre is the music department at the Weston-McEwen School District. He is the project manager for the Athena’s Gem Theatre, which has been in the works for about 20 years now. Elsa Rogers is now a senior at Weston-McEwen High School. She started work as a volunteer on this project when she was in fifth grade.
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