Three local real estate experts talk about Portland's future

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Construction moves along at the building on the corner of  SW 2nd and Taylor.Portland’s economy is finally recovering from the Great Recession, but several challenges must be overcome before it will grow as fast as the economy in Seattle — or even Washington and Clark counties.

Signs of the recovery include the resumption of work on the Park Avenue West Tower and the redevelopment of the Southwest Second and Taylor Building, both in downtown. Both projects have helped generate thousands of new construction jobs in recent months.

Challenges include a shortage of available land for large new employers and the slow-moving Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup that is delaying the redevelopment of many important industrial sites along the Willamette River.

That was the consensus of a panel of three commercial real estate experts who spoke at the June 18 breakfast forum held by the Portland Business Alliance at the downtown Sentinel Hotel. The experts included: Scott Andrews, president of Melvin Mark Properties; Jeremy Vermilyea, a shareholder with the Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt law firm; and Corey Lohman, president of the Emerick Construction Company.

Of the three, Anderson was the most bullish on Portland, something he admitted was no surprise because he also chairs the board of the Portland Development Commission.

“The tide has turned, in my opinion, and traditional suburban companies are moving downtown, even into buildings they don’t necessarily like because of limited availabilities,” said Anderson.

Vermiliyea and Lohman were more enthusiastic about the short-term possibilities in Washington and Clark counties, however, in part because they both have large tracts of land ready for development. Vermiliyea said the real estate market is currently hotter in Washington County and Southwest Washington state, while Lohman chose Vancouver and South Puget Sound.

All three agreed that three projects could help boost the regional economy, however. They are the Columbia River Crossing and the development of West Hayden Island by the Port of Portland — both of which appear dead for now. The third is the Headquarters Hotel proposed by Metro next to the Oregon Convention Center, which the three agreed would create additional construction jobs and boost tourism.

“The Headquarters Hotel has always been part of the plan for the convention center,” said Anderson. Metro is currently scheduled to vote on the development and finance agreements for the project on Thursday, June 26. A group of existing local hotel owners have gone to court to stop the project.

The three also agreed that additional government-funded infrastructure investments are necessary to improve the economy even more. The panel was split on whether Portland will have a street fee in a year. Anderson guessed no, while Vermiliyea said probably and Lohman offered “flip a coin.”

Several times during the discussion, Lohman said the construction industry is being held back by a shortage of qualified workers. Experienced baby boomers are retiring, Lohman said, and not enough younger workers are taking their places. He proposed allowing construction companies to pay a lower “training wage” for inexperienced workers until they acquire necessary job skills, but admitted the idea was controversial.

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