Fighting for Keller jobs


As the Portland City Council debates whether to renovate the Keller Auditorium or build a new venue, performers and workers are worried about being put out of work for years. 

The Keller is Portland’s premier venue for traveling Broadway shows, the Portland Opera, ballet productions, and more. In 2020, a city study determined that the century-old auditorium likely wouldn’t survive a powerful earthquake. This summer, the city council is considering three plans for the Keller’s future: building a modern auditorium at the Lloyd Center or Portland State University, or a renovation and redesign of the existing venue in downtown Portland.

The Keller employs hundreds of workers as stagehands, performing artists, wardrobe workers, musicians, ticket-takers, and food and beverage handlers. Renovating the Keller would close the venue for about a year and half, according to a nonprofit advocating for the renovation plan, the Portland-based Halprin Landscape Conservancy. Closing the Keller for just one year would cost an estimated 320 jobs and $20 million in labor income, according to a report paid for by the regional government Metro.  

Union members are rallying to prevent that.

“The closure of Keller Auditorium for any length of time would be catastrophic for Portland’s arts and entertainment workers, the arts organizations for whom they work, and the city’s comeback,” said Oregon AFL-CIO Office Manager Emily Sahler during a May 29 city council meeting. 

Sahler, who is also a member of the entertainment union SAG-AFTRA, testified at the packed meeting alongside members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), American Federation of Musicians, and UNITE HERE. 

“We cannot endure any lost work,” said Emily Horton, a wardrobe worker and a member of IATSE Local 28. “Our skills are unique and live-events specific. We cannot just find other jobs. These are the jobs in Portland,” she said.

The Keller opened its doors in 1917 and has since been a go-to venue for concerts and civic events. It hosts about 400,000 visitors annually and generates half the revenue for the city’s five performing arts centers, which are owned by the City of Portland.

Dana Rokosny, president of Musicians Local 99, is a violist who has performed at the Keller with the Oregon Ballet Theatre and Portland Opera. She estimated that the Keller employs between 70 and 100 musicians alone. Without it, musicians would lose a financial anchor, she said.

“We have a lot of folks who rely on that work,” Rokosny said.

Three developers are competing for the city council’s approval to build the new venue or renovate the old. On May 29, the city council heard presentations on each plan. The council is expected to pick one in July or August. 

Renderings of all three designs show striking plans for the new auditorium. 

The renovation plan is backed by the Halprin Landscape Conservancy, a nonprofit led by prominent developers and architects. It is estimated to cost the least, totaling between $230 million and $280 million depending on the project’s timeline. 

Building a new auditorium at the Lloyd Center would cost about $430 million. That plan is backed by a Seattle-based real estate developer Urban Renaissance Group.

The PSU project would cost about $650 million for three buildings: a 3,000-seat auditorium, a 150-room hotel, and a smaller auditorium. It would occupy the current site of the PSU-owned University Place Hotel at the intersection of Southwest Lincoln Street and Southwest Fourth Avenue.

Musicians Local 99 doesn’t have an official preference among the three plans but is leaning toward the PSU plan, Rokosny said. Personally, she supports that plan primarily because it would keep the Keller open while construction takes place — maintaining the auditorium’s vital role in the local arts economy and Portland’s central city.

“It seems like a terrible time to decide to close that venue for renovation with no other option for performances or shows to be downtown during that time,” she said.


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