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Neighborhood business associations slowly getting organized 30 years on

COURTESY VENTURE PORTLAND - Venture Portland President Brian Alfano toasts the organizations 30th birthday. Its responsible for supporting neighborhood associations across the city of Portland.

If you’ve ever been to a street fair in Portland or just admired the hanging flower baskets on your local neighborhood shopping strip, you’ve looked on the work of Venture Portland.

The organization, which changed its name from the Alliance of Portland Neighborhood Business Associations to Venture Portland in 2011, celebrated its 30th birthday last week with a party at the Melody Ballroom.

It sounds like it must be something to do with venture capital, with the so-called smart money chasing tech startups with no products or revenues, but its almost the opposite. It’s about allocating small amounts of taxpayer’s money to make local businesses attractive to the locals. It’s as much about the local hairdresser as it is about Fred Meyer, although both are as likely to be members. It’s about whipping up some enthusiasm for a street fair or coordinating the look of a neighborhood.

Tourists seem to love how neighborhoody Portland is, how people like to walk their territory on weekends and shop local, as an antidote to the sprawl — online and off — that makes up most of modern life.

The “venture” in the title refers to this “venturing out.”

Venture Portland helps neighborhoods brand and market themselves, and trains people to be presidents, treasurers, volunteer coordinators, etc, of neighborhood business associations.

The ubiquitous Commissioner Nick Fish took the microphone at the 30th birthday party and pointed out that 70 cents of every dollar spent on local businesses stays in that community.

“When you go online and buy something from Amazon, how many family wage jobs does that support in Portland? How many little league contributions does it produce, how many charitable donations, how many causes in our city do they raise money for?”

A few people shouted out “Zero,” which was the correct answer.

“I’m not anti-Amazon, and people should have choices,” Fish continued, “But every day you are making us a better city, and we have an obligation to support the local businesses that are the backbone of our economy.”

Portland has around 50 neighborhood business districts supporting 270,000 jobs, according to Brian Alfano, chairman of Venture Portland.

Examples include the Hawthorne Business district in Southeast and the Beaumont Business District in Northeast.

As well as street fairs, grants also fund “Holiday festivities, websites, banners, newsletters, maps and other marketing collateral,” according to Venture Portland’s website.

Fairly typical of the people who are the backbone of VP is Randy Bonella, the executive director or the Multnomah Village Business Association. Formerly an Intel employee for 11 years, he now works from home custom designing microprocessors.

One he has on the go right now is for a medical device, a wand used for uterine oblation, which helps women with very heavy periods.

Another is for DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), to be used on a military drone.

He says he joined the neighborhood association first when he was looking for a way to get involved in village life.

“I only live a couple blocks away, and there are no sidewalks, so whatever happens in Multnomah Village is important to me and my wife,” he said. His current position only takes about three hours a week.

They run a successful shop local campaign around the holiday season, and he “interfaces with the city around capital projects,” such as the upgrade of Multnomah Boulevard, which added swales and bike and pedestrian paths.

His group worked to mitigate the impact on local businesses, making sure there were pedestrian bridges to the business doorways, and signs saying the stores were still open, and promotions, banners, flyers and newspaper ads to keep customers coming. After all, the contractors weren’t going to do it.

“Their job is to put pavement down and pour concrete,” he says with a smile.

Aside from the lack of sidewalks and parking, he says Multnomah Village is doing well. “Our operations are about sustaining our current environment, because we have 100 percent occupancy.”

Another key Venture Portland player is Katie Meyer.

Not only does she do marketing for the Belmont Area Business Association, she also runs two businesses, Triple Bottom Management and Block Party Barricades.

In the former, she runs five streets fairs, which are the Venture Portland way of raising money and awareness at the same time. And as owner of Block Party Barricades, she is Portland’s biggest provider of barricades and no parking signs used for street fairs, beer festivals and fun runs.

Also in the street fair business is Bridget Bayer, who has a how-to book out called “Street Fairs for Community and Profit.”

“The book is about how events can help build community, it’s really for business associations,” Bayer said. She was there with her friend Nancy Chapin, who staffed the old APNBA from 1991 to 2005 when it had a tiny budget. (It now has four full time staff.)

“The APNBA wouldn’t be anywhere without Nancy, she did 10 times the work she was paid for for 14 years,” said Bayer, enjoying the birthday.

“We helped business associations form,” said Chapin. “For example we helped the North Mississippi Avenue people write their bylaws.” The money flows from the Portland Development Commission to the business associations for them to decide how it’s spent.

Fred Meyer Hawthorne pays about $500 a year to join. Whereas Jo-Anna Dirk of Haircolor Salon Dirk, hairstylists in Hillsdale, said she pays $40 a year, although she kicks in another $100 towards hanging flower baskets.

“Now Venture Portland is pulling in the big-time training bucks,” adds Bayer. “The big bucks are in relationships,” she clarifies. “There’s a huge effort of reaching out to volunteers, how to be a treasurer or a volunteer.”

“Street fairs, flower baskets, garbage cans, whatever helps delineate a district,” says Chapin. “They can use it for having an annual meeting. We’ve done trainings and conferences, so people could create an organization. We tell them, ‘You’re a legal organization, you need to know how to do things.”

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