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  • 23 Oct 2014

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Our Opinion: City must support blue-collar jobs, too

Mayor Charlie Hales disputes the notion that the city of Portland is willing to go all out for white-collar jobs while failing to give equal support to attract skilled blue-collar jobs to the area.

In a recent Portland Tribune story, he labeled such a suggestion as “nonsense” and a “totally false proposition.”

Whether it’s an intended policy or not, however, it’s hard not to notice two recent examples where the City Council demonstrated more enthusiasm for doctors and researchers than it did for workers whose livelihood depends on imports and exports.

In one case, the council jumped — quite appropriately, we believe — to endorse a $200 million state funding request that would support Phil Knight’s bid to expand the OHSU Knight Cancer Research Center. In the other case, it rejected the Port of Portland’s request to tone down $82 million in conditions imposed by the city Planning and Sustainability Commission on development of a West Hayden Island marine terminal.

As reported last week by the Portland Tribune’s Steve Law, if OHSU’s cancer research project is expanded with construction of two new South Waterfront buildings, it has promised to deliver nearly 400 permanent jobs in addition to spinoff benefits.

The port’s proposal for West Hayden Island could have created 937 to 1,175 well-paying middle-class jobs and generated its own spinoffs.

Let’s be absolutely clear here about the comparison: We agree with the City Council that the state should invest in the Knight Cancer Research Center, since it offers an economic opportunity unlike any the region has seen. Yet, it’s also vital to keep in mind that Portland’s economy was built around the activities of its port. The failure of the city to find a compromise with the port was every bit as shortsighted as it would have been to give a cold shoulder to OHSU.

This region has a rich tradition of producing durable goods, which are the true benchmark of any economy. When it comes to transporting the things Oregon makes — whether it is food or manufactured goods — Portland has always met the need. However, the amount of industrial land available to encourage further development of manufacturing industries is shrinking, and the ability of the port to plan for its long-range future is now uncertain.

The city’s decision to push aside the West Hayden Island shipping terminal project was a win for environmentalists and island residents, but the decision also hamstrings the region’s economic development efforts.

The city must do a better job of encouraging growth of middle-income jobs, such as those found in manufacturing, logistics and port operations. Finding the necessary industrial land for this kind of job growth is the logical first step. It is naive to believe the industrial land supply can be fulfilled through rehabilitation of brownfields alone, as those sites can take years, if not decades, to restore.

Without West Hayden Island, Portland is in a bind for industrial land. Yet, it needs room to nurture the very types of jobs — skilled work in the areas of manufacturing and shipping — that created a successful economy here to begin with.