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Tourism experts: Do something about the homeless

Portland is rapidly becoming a popular travel destination but its image is being hurt by the large number of homeless people living in urban core.

That was the consensus of a panel of tourism experts who spoke at the June 19 Forum Breakfast presented by the Portland Business Alliance.

"It's a huge problem. You hear, 'Your panhandlers are very nice,' but it's a problem," said Jeff Miller, president and chief operating officer of Travel Portland, a tourism promotion organization.

Bashar Wali, president of Provence Hotels, agreed. "We hear it from a lot of guests. It's definitely a problem."

And Carrie Welch, co-founder of the annual Feast Portland food festival, said parking at work in inner east Portland was discomforting. "There's a homeless community living under the bridge where I park. When I pull in, I'm parking in someone's living room," said Welch, who is also president of the Little Green Pickle public relations firm.

Miller, Wali and Welch all lamented the shortage of services to help the homeless move into permanent housing, especially those with apparent mental issues.

"New York City put them in jail and we can't do that, but there's a lack of infrastructure for addressing these problems," said Welch.

Miller and Wali said elected leaders should meet with the business community and social service providers to work out more effective solutions.

"At the end of the day, we all need to sit at the table and do something about it," said Wali, who company owns the deLuxe, Governor, Lucia and Westin hotels, among others.

"It's a national problem," said Miller.

The comments about the homeless population came in response to a question from Sandra McDonough, president and chief executive officer of the PBA, which represent many Portland business owners. The PBA supports legislation in the 2013 Oregon Legislature that would give the City Council more power over sidewalks. It is stalled in a state Senate committee.

It followed positive assessments about the city's appeal from Miller, Wali, Welch and Mark Bocchi, managing director of Alaska Airline. Bocchi said that when Alaska was considering starting direct flight from Portland to Washington, D.C., the Federal Aviation Administration received so many positive emails that its website temporarily crashed.

"That's the amount of interest there is in Portland," Bocchi said.

According to Miller, Wali and Welch, the primary interest in Portland is its food culture, including the proliferation of craft breweries. "Culinary travel is big," said Miller.

Welch, a former Food Network executive, said the local restaurant scene was a big reason she moved to Portland two years ago. Welch said she co-founded the Feast Portland last year to expose more people to local chefs and products.

This year's event is scheduled at various locations around town from Sept. 19 to 22. It is a fundraiser for two charities that fight childhood hunger, Share Our Strength and Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. Last year's event raised $46,000 for charity, Welch said.

In response to an audience question, Miller said "Portlandia," the satirical TV show on the Independent Film Channel, was good for the city.

"It skewers us in a really nice way. From a business perspective, it hasn't hurt us at all," said Miller.