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Venture Portland disburses grants.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: ADAM WICKHAM - The Hawthorne Street Fair is an example of what Neighborhood Business Districts spend their grant money on from Venture Portland.

Keeping it local was never so easy.

As Portland grows and struggles to hold on to the small-city values that attracted people here in the first place (free parking, shopkeepers who know your name, mild weirdness) local nonprofit Venture Portland is in the thick of it.

Venture Portland supports neighborhood business districts with grants, helping them form solid identities that will attract visitors and consumers.

In its latest round of grants, Venture Portland, awarded $34,250 to fund 12 Fall/Winter Grant Projects.

Street fairs are a huge part of the summer business district activity. They raise money and awareness and give a sense of place to neighborhoods such as Mississippi and Hawthorne. In fall, consumers looking for gifts this holiday season might see lights and decorations on trees and lampposts, as well as promotional events designed to draw shoppers.

One of Venture Portland’s ideas is to ‘Localize the Season’ and support neighborhood businesses. The belief is that 68 percent of retail income remains local. For every $100 spent at a local business, $68 returns to the local economy.

Last financial year (through July 2016) Venture Portland awarded $94,120 in grants. This year, through June 30, 2017, they are on track to give out more than $100,000.

Much of the $34,000-plus will go to revamp district websites. For example, a grant paid for the Montavilla/East Tabor website (metba.org) to hire a professional photographer to take high quality photos of local businesses and residents. The result is a good-looking collage that keeps the local flavor of the neighborhood. It avoids the official boilerplate style of much chamber of commerce brochure-ware, while retaining the authenticity of a self-made page like you’d find on Airbnb, with the feel of a Portland Monthly spread.

Heather Hoell, Executive Director of Venture Portland, says they consistently get more requests for grants than they have money for.

“It’s a very popular program,” she told the Business Tribune. And it’s not just cash. “Each cycle we also provide eight dedicated days of office hours, so people can think through the evaluation methods. Generally we do it in our office, but we can go to other business districts.” They also accept grant drafts over email so they can advise writers on how to complete them.

Hoell’s day often consists of driving around the city meeting business owners individually, or attending board meetings. Recently she was heading to Montavilla to hear how their 2016 Trick or Treat event went. “I do not go there to check up on them, I’m there to support: to listen, observe and provide insight.”

The business districts match every dollar that is granted. This season, they have matched at a 4 to 1 ratio. That money goes to the same uses.

“We see the grants as seed funding to catalyze activity in the same districts,” says Hoell.

Not everything is retail focused. “The Pearl District business association is holding a its second annual business awards luncheon, to highlight the diversity of businesses in that area, such as service industries and real estate agents.”

(This will be at the Benson Hotel on November 14. See sidebar.)

Hoell says there’s no chance that all the business district websites will end up with the same cookie cutter look because each one is encouraged to shop locally for a designer.

“Each business district has its own mix and needs a website that promotes that unique identity.”

Unique neighborhoods

Hoell lives in North Portland, in a residential neighborhood between three neighborhood business districts.

She has no favorites. “I pretty much love them all. I spend half my time each week venturing out.”

When pushed, she singles out Kenton in North Portland.

“I think there are some exceptionally exciting things happening in Kenton right now. In addition to the Paul Bunyan statue, which is a landmark, Kenton has a unique mix of businesses. And the anchoring business are primarily owned and operated by women. Many were started around the same time, seven years ago.”

These business owners have certain solidarity, being women and having come out of the Great Recession.

Hoell also characterizes Kenton as a maker area. “It’s an employment center with large number of makers, such as for Posies Bakery and Bowery Bagels.” (Bagels are made there and shipped to the store along Northwest Broadway in Old Town.)

She also calls out Salvage Works and antique stores that give the area character as a place of “curated goods,” and the Cultured Caveman as Portland’s “only brick and mortar paleo restaurant.”

“Neighborhood business districts are living entities, the mix changes all the time, and sometimes it’s related to infrastructure investments.”

The revamp of Kenton’s main drag, with its generous sidewalks and easy MAX access, as well as the arrival of the Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, contributed widely to its new image.

Division/Clinton and Williams are also good examples of districts that have benefitted from infrastructure improvements in the dark days of the recession.

Dedicated to growing neighborhood businesses

The grants committee is made up of Venture Portland Board members and community stakeholders. They included awards in Economic Development and Benchmark categories.

Economic Development grants strategically focus on creating or retaining jobs, growing neighborhood business revenue and creating new businesses while Benchmark grants focus on tactical achievements to build strong, vibrant and financially stable business districts.

Commissioner Nick Fish is the official liaison to Venture Portland, appointed by Mayor Charlie Hales early in Hales’s term.

“Our neighborhood small businesses are the backbone of Portland’s economy,” said Fish in a statement. “There is no better time than during the Holiday season to support our small business community by shopping local.”

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