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March 5th, 2014 AARON MESH | Cover Story
 

Touchdown Terry

Clackamas County tycoon Terry Emmert is bringing pro football players to Portland. Why?

lede_4018IMAGE: Christopher Onstott
The kingdom of Terry Emmert is easy to miss from Oregon Route 212.

A state highway that wears its sprawl as proudly as a new Carhartt jacket, 212 stretches east from Interstate 205 to Boring, slicing through Clackamas County with a trail of fast-food restaurants, a Fred Meyer distribution center and a barn-sized porn shop next to a motel.

IMAGE: Christopher Onstott
On the north side of 212, adjacent to a pool-supply store, is the world headquarters of Emmert International: 30 acres of warehouses, trucks and beefy red metal drums. At the entrance is an empty guard shack with a large blue sign: “EXPECT EXCELLENCE.”

The cluttered campus is also the nerve center of Oregon’s newest pro sports franchise, an arena football team called the Portland Thunder.

Dozens of buildings are randomly plopped down on the land, a ghost town of structures Emmert has moved here and offers for sale. Over the years, this has included duplexes from a Portland public-housing project, a gas station, even a bank with a drive-thru teller window.

Emmert’s office is on the second floor of a sprawling wood building. The ceiling in the front stairwell is painted gold.

In the lobby, next to a wall of tennis awards, a television plays a loop of video highlights of the company’s rigging and hauling projects. Emmert has relocated mammoth objects: the world’s largest wooden airplane, a huge magnet and a 340-ton granite boulder.

Emmert is the Dog the Bounty Hunter of moving stuff. If you have a building, a telescope, a power-plant generator or a statue, and you want it moved though everyone says it can’t be done, you call Emmert. (See “Scoring Drives,” below.)

In the hallway is a laminated 2006 article from American Cranes & Transport magazine (republished here).

“If there were a five-tool player in business, Terry Emmert would definitely fall into the category,” the story begins. “Emmert makes the most of every day, dedicating a portion of his expertise, wit, charm, empathy and heart to people and efforts he deems important. In baseball terms, Emmert bats a 1,000.”

IN FOR THE LONG HAUL: The world headquarters of Emmert International in Clackamas is also a storage lot for I-beams used to move huge objects.
IMAGE: Christopher Onstott

His desk is invisible under a sea of papers. The walls are filled with photos of Emmert posing next to luminaries: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Neil Goldschmidt.

On a recent afternoon, Emmert was on the phone talking to a potential client in Texas.

“One of my best friends is from down there,” he says. “You follow the NBA for a while? Well, he’s Clyde Drexler.” Emmert then mentioned the golf handicap of the former Trail Blazers star, and added, “I’m his white caddy.”

It would be fair to call Emmert a tycoon, if one of the definitions of tycoon is a 69-year-old with a puckish sense of humor, a willingness to sue just about anyone (including his own former attorney) and an ability to succeed where others have failed.

“He didn’t have to go to college to have some professor teach him the words ‘vertically integrated,’” says Ken C. Bauman, a former assistant United States district attorney who has known Emmert for more than 50 years—and now serves as his attorney. “He learned the concept in the real world.”

The son and grandson of Portland plumbers, Emmert started buying homes in the path of the proposed Mount Hood Freeway shortly after graduating from Central Catholic High School in 1962. He quickly realized he could make more money hauling away the buildings—so he bought a house-moving company.

His company now has offices in Texas, because oil and gas companies need to move big objects. State court documents in a 2007 case pegged Emmert’s personal net worth then at $160 million.

He owns two tennis clubs, 22 cars, a hotel and a five-bedroom beachfront vacation home in Mazatlán, Mexico. He has eight ranches.

“From what I can tell, he seems to have a preference for dirt—buying and selling land,” says state Rep. Brent Barton (D-Oregon City).

Emmert hosts annual barbecues that are among Clackamas County’s hottest Republican social tickets—one year, he boiled 150 pounds of octopus for his guests.

Divorced, with a girlfriend 30 years his junior, Emmert has recruited his children to manage his businesses: son Terry Michael Emmert is vice president of Emmert International, and daughter Christine Vessey runs Clackamas River Racquet Club.

BUFFALO BILLS: Emmert offers visitors a care package of meat products made from his herd of water buffalo, including pepperoni sticks, jerky and ground meat.
IMAGE: Christopher Onstott

He owns a herd of more than 400 water buffalo on ranches outside Oregon City, as well as a slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant in Sandy.

“The only reason I bought that slaughterhouse,” Emmert has been known to say, “is that it has a 2,000-pound incinerator. And you can fit 10 200-pound attorneys at a time.”

“He really is a renaissance man,” says Clackamas County Commissioner Tootie Smith. “I can’t remember all of his businesses, to be honest with you.”

And now, at a time when most men would be ready to ease into retirement at the Mexican beach house, Emmert has decided to take on a new project: bringing professional football to Portland.

He’s not buying an NFL franchise but rather the sawed-off version: an arena football team. The Thunder will be to the Seattle Seahawks what a Dotty’s Deli is to the Bellagio, or what a karaoke singer is to Bruce Springsteen.

Which raises the question: What makes Terry run?

THUNDERSTRUCK: Helmets arrived at the Portland Thunder front office days before training camp began on Feb. 22.
IMAGE: Christopher Onstott

 

It’s clear that Emmert likes a fight.

His court record is littered with lawsuits, fines and penalties.

The state of Oregon has fined him for allowing his water buffalo to defecate in a creek that feeds into a salmon and steelhead habitat. Emmert paid the fine, but maintains the fecal pollution was left by 3,000 Canada geese.

In 2007, his business partners in a Washington County development deal sued him for letting the bank foreclose on their land, then buying it out from under them. That case is still in court; Emmert says it has no merit.

Two years earlier, Emmert settled a lawsuit alleging he and his partners bought a house that had been used as a meth lab, didn’t clean it up, then rented it to a single mother and two children. Emmert says it wasn’t a meth lab, and the renters were suing to get his insurance money.

One of his in-house attorneys sued him for sexual discrimination—he countersued, and the case is on appeal. Another employee gave a sworn statement that Emmert once fired a secretary because her younger replacement “will really give us something to look at.” (He denies any gender discrimination.)

Another Emmert employee, Michele Matesi, told Clackamas County Sheriff’s detectives in 2001 that Emmert pointed a silver revolver at her face and threatened to kill her.

Matesi later told detectives she made up the story. She’s still working for Emmert. “I don’t own a silver revolver,” he says.

Emmert is not always the defendant. He is often the plaintiff.

Last year, he sued Clackamas County for $40 million, alleging the county conspired to break promises and keep him from using his land while buying his property for a highway project.

“I love the Texas attitude,” Emmert tells a potential Houston client over the phone. “‘How can we help you to get it done?’ As opposed to the rest of the country, which is, ‘How can we stop you?’”

“He’d die in four or five months,” says Bauman, “if he didn’t have deals to make.”

Outside Clackamas County and Texas, Emmert is far less well-known. But he’s got a plan to change that.


DUCK TALES: Quarterback Darron Thomas (1), who played for the University of Oregon, remains hugely popular in Portland, getting the loudest cheer at a recent Trail Blazers game.
IMAGE: Christopher Onstott


Emmert landed an Arena Football League team in a characteristic way: He moved it. He paid an undisclosed amount (Emmert confirms it was a $4 million to $8 million investment) in October for the rights to the Milwaukee Mustangs, a Wisconsin team that folded in 2012. The deal came with the Mustangs’ artificial turf, which Emmert will roll into Moda Center for the Portland Thunder’s March 17 opener against the San Jose SaberCats.

Thunder headquarters are in a warehouse a block west of Emmert’s office in Clackamas.

On Feb. 21, as players began to arrive for training camp, the locker room was still being used as a storage facility for Emmert’s collection of vintage basketball courts.

Emmert owns 13 basketball arena floors, including the Miami Heat court from Dwyane Wade’s 2006 NBA title season.

He keeps track of how many courts other sports owners have amassed. “I have a lot of respect for Paul Allen,” Emmert says of the Microsoft co-founder and Blazers owner. “I’ll give him credit for four. We just happen to have 13.”

Emmert cultivates the grizzled swagger of an aging gunslinger—if that desperado wore basketball warm-up tracksuits. He’s tan, with a salt-and-pepper mustache and what looks like a badger pelt perched on his head.

He declines to say whether it’s a toupee, and is reluctant talk about how much he paid for anything. Instead, he spins tales of outwitting labor unions and flying on the Blazers jet, interrupting himself to take phone calls and call out orders to his personal assistant.

It’s a standup comedy act, performed sitting down. As he finishes each story, he leans forward on his elbows—like a granddad about to pull a quarter out of your nose. He makes a quip. Then he winks.

SNAP COUNTDOWN: Portland Thunder training camp is being held at Tualatin Indoor Soccer, a 17-mile drive from Emmert International.
IMAGE: Christopher Onstott

Emmert’s office, which looks like it hasn’t been tidied since the Reagan administration, has the bustle of a train station. Visitors and supplicants shuffle in and out, seeking an audience.

Emmert has thrown himself into the details of owning a team that most sports moguls would delegate. He recently met with Legacy Health to discuss player health care, and with Michael’s Italian Beef and Sausage Co. for a food deal.

Two weeks ago, he was in his office with the president of a local hand-chalk company who brought a cloth satchel filled with sweet-smelling chalk dust.

Emmert took a pinch of the powder, gripped a football, tossed the ball from hand to hand, and sniffed.

The executive explained the chalk contains essential oils, including cinnamon and lavender: “The athletes say they find it invigorating.”

“Oh, that’s great,” Emmert replied, raising an eyebrow. “Somebody out there will be going”—he raises a finger to his nose and snorts three times, like he’s doing bumps of cocaine.


WHISTLE-BLOWER: Matthew Sauk, 37, is getting his first head-coaching gig with the Thunder. He won an Arena Bowl in 2010 as offensive coordinator for the Spokane Shock.
IMAGE: Christopher Onstott


Emmert has attended only one NFL game. He finds it dull—not enough offense. (Arena football is played on a 50-yard field, half the length of NFL turf, and there are no sidelines.)

“I like scoring,” he says. “You don’t see a lot of young men that go into a nightclub who don’t want to score.”

Emmert has scratched around the fringes of professional sports for a quarter century. In 1991, he began sponsoring a flag-football team in the Portland 7-Man Football League; it competed in the 1993 national tournament in Las Vegas.

He diversified into owning sports facilities, including the Eastmoreland Racquet Club, a tennis club in one of Portland’s poshest neighborhoods. 

In 2005, he repurposed one of the club’s tennis courts as the home court for the Portland Chinooks, the International Basketball League team he owns.

Neighbors complained to City Hall, accusing Emmert of emptying the club’s swimming pool into nearby Johnson Creek. Emmert had the last laugh: He turned all the indoor tennis courts into a basketball facility in 2012.

The Chinooks weren’t the only pro basketball team Emmert has tried to purchase. He funded the short-lived Portland Reign of the American Basketball Association; made a $3 million bid with Drexler in 2002 for Portland’s WNBA team, the Fire; and teamed with Drexler again in 2006 to try to get Paul Allen to sell them the Trail Blazers.

Emmert is fond of telling stories about his adventures with former Blazer players. He calls the late power forward Maurice Lucas “the best of friends,” and recounts their horseback rides on Emmert’s ranch.

“The old saw, ‘I’ve got a lot of black friends,’ is not just a saw with Terry,” says Bauman. “He really enjoys being around athletes and athletic events. These guys truly are his friends.”

Now Emmert has a new wingman: Darron Thomas.

Thomas, who is competing to become the Thunder’s starting quarterback, was a star at the University of Oregon—in the 2010 season, he took the Ducks to the national championship game.

HOME COOKING: Defensive back Bryce Peila prepares for a scrimmage. He played at Western Oregon University—one of eight Thunder prospects to play college football in-state.
IMAGE: Christopher Onstott

Thomas entered the NFL draft two years ago, but no team picked him. He hasn’t played in a game since.

“If he could be good,” says Dwight Jaynes, a commentator for CSN Northwest, “some of those Ducks fans are going to wander through the door.”

Emmert takes Thomas with him everywhere—including to political and nonprofit fundraisers—and calls him “a member of the family.”

On a chilly night last month, he brought the quarterback to a downtown Portland movie screening. The film, Levitated Mass, was a documentary by director Doug Pray about Emmert International moving a granite boulder 115 miles to become part of a Los Angeles art installation. The 88-minute movie ponders the meaning of modern art while tracing the rock’s march westward.

What did Thomas think of the picture?

“I’m kind of a comedy guy,” he said.

After the movie, Emmert took Thomas and his entourage to Ruth’s Chris Steak House to celebrate the 50th birthday of Emmert’s son, Terry Michael.

Thomas sat stiffly as Emmert International executives pressed him for stories about Ducks games and the rules of the arena league.

“It’s still football,” he said softly.

They urged him to talk about how Emmert hopes to augment the Moda Center concession stands with pepperoni sticks made from his herd of water buffalo.

“They call them Thunder Sticks,” said Thomas,smiling skeptically. “They’re going to sell them at the game.”

Terry Michael interrupted: “No, it’s Thunder Dicks!” 

He and a fellow executive laughed so hard they cried.

As the party died down, Emmert requested a foil bag of steak bones to take home to his German shepherd, Baron.


THE GLOBETROTTER: Thunder general manager Meadow Lemon watches training camp. “The city expects great things from you guys,” he tells players.
IMAGE: Christopher Onstott


Meadow Lemon watched last week in the musty confines of a Tualatin indoor soccer center as the older brother of Blazers All-Star guard Damian Lillard fumbled snaps to the tune of Madonna’s “Ray of Light.”

Lemon is the Thunder’s general manager. He wears three-piece suits and was an assistant coach for the football teams at Lewis & Clark and Linfield colleges.

He’s the son of Meadowlark Lemon, the former “Clown Prince” of the Harlem Globetrotters—and his phone ringtone whistles “Sweet Georgia Brown,” the Globetrotters’ theme song.

He says Emmert inspires him.

“This man moves things that other people say are impossible,” Lemon says. “That’s who I want to be around.”

Houston Lillard is among 40 players at Thunder training camp. The players are staying at a Days Inn in Clackamas, then traveling 30 minutes by van each morning to Tualatin Indoor Soccer.

LACES OUT: The Arena Football League recently inked a deal with ESPN to air 10 games a year on its cable channels.
IMAGE: Christopher Onstott

The speakers blare dated pop music, and the walls around the soccer field are covered with padding for the players to crash into—which they do whenever a pass is overthrown.

This is pro football—but barely. The players are competing for 24 roster spots—and a paycheck of $830 per game. That number, a result of a hard-fought collective bargaining agreement, translates to an annual salary of $14,940 before taxes.

The sport’s finances are nearly as shaky. The Arena Football League was a gaudy almost-craze in the late 1990s, when the NFL invested—and when the Portland Forest Dragons played for three years in the Rose Garden to an average home attendance of 8,914.

The AFL filed for bankruptcy in 2009, canceling the season, and re-emerged the next year to shrinking crowds.

The new structure of the AFL means Emmert didn’t actually buy the Portland Thunder—he bought a share in the league, which owns rights to the players. The ownership pool includes face-painted rockers Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, who are starting a team called the Los Angeles Kiss.

Football has become a monolithic part of American culture—just witness the pompous grandeur of the NFL, or Phil Knight-funded Death Star-style locker rooms at the University of Oregon.

Arena football has its nose firmly pressed against the glass of the bright lights of big-time football. The players are risking their long-term health for little more than they could make tending bar to keep their dreams alive, to stand in the faint warmth at the edges of the NFL’s intoxicating glow.

And the Thunder’s owner? It doesn’t take much time in Emmert’s presence to understand he feels, for all his accomplishments, underappreciated. Every poster and advertisement for the team features a giant picture of Thomas—and a smaller glamour shot of Emmert.

He wouldn’t be the first mogul who used a sports franchise to turn the spotlight on himself, or the first who was a jock-sniffer who enjoys basking in the presence of younger, fitter men.

Emmert views it quite differently.

“If I was producing movies, it wouldn’t be because I wanted to hang around with the best-looking female star,” Emmert says. “I like to build a group that can work together.

“I got the biggest kick out of taking a home that’s got broken windows and a bad roof, taking that sow’s ear, and making it a nice home. It’s no different than building a winning team. It’s all building.”

On the first night of training camp, three weeks before the March 17 home opener, the players trying out for the Thunder got a meal at Moda Center—and some pointers on proper behavior.

The dinner was hot dogs, pasta, potato salad and popcorn, all served in the plush Rose Room.

Meadow Lemon delivered the lecture.

“You guys stood right outside my office and cussed,” Lemon said. “It burned my ears. If you think you’re here just to play football, you’re missing it.”

He said he overheard one athlete make a crude remark to a female Moda Center server, who left because she was so offended.

“If you do something to embarrass the Portland Thunder, there’s not going to be a lot of discussion,” he said. “You’re going to be ex-Portland Thunder.” 

Lemon stared at a room of silent faces. “I want you guys to remember,” he said, “you’re representing Terry Emmert.”

NO SIDELINES: An arena football player is not counted as out of bounds unless he is pushed into or falls over the sideline barrier.
IMAGE: Christopher Onstott

 

SCORING DRIVES: A FEW OF EMMERT INTERNATIONAL’S MOST PROMINENT MOVING JOBS


1985: Hauls the 87-year-old Fairmount Hotel nearly a mile through downtown San Antonio. The move makes national television—and Emmert’s theatrical additions include getting a priest, a rabbi and a minister to bless the 1,650-ton hotel beforehand.

1993: Moves the Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes’ 800,000-pound wooden seaplane, seven miles from the Willamette River to an aviation museum in McMinnville. 

2003: Relocates the 37-foot-tall Paul Bunyan statue in Portland’s Kenton neighborhood to make room for the MAX light-rail tracks. 

2012: Transports four coke-drum “megaloads” from Idaho to Montana on their way to the Alberta tar sands, Canada’s controversial oil-mining project. 

2013: Spends two months hauling the Muon g-2 ring—a 50-foot-wide magnet—from New York to Illinois, where it is currently being used with a particle accelerator to study dark matter.

 
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