Our Opinion: Find path forward for Portland's struggling economy
Portland's economy is struggling. Its downtown and other business districts are wounded, its reputation is suffering, and its confidence is shaken.
Some of Portland's problems are shared by cities nationwide after a year of COVID-19 shutdowns. Other issues — such as the undeniable damage caused by months of vandalism — are unique to this locale. But regardless of the causes, Portland's residents, and particularly its businesses large and small, are desperate to see a roadmap toward recovery.
A report released last week from the Portland Business Alliance and consulting firm ECONorthwest provides a snapshot of the regional economy in 2021. It also quantifies what most Portlanders suspected — that outside perceptions of their city have turned negative after months of national media coverage of clashes between police and splinter groups of protestors.
Data from Travel Portland shows the news coverage has had a predictable effect. The percentage of people who view Portland as an appealing place to visit fell from 54% to 32% in just one year. Other statistics show that people who actually live here have similar feelings: The number of pedestrians downtown has dropped precipitously. Meanwhile, real estate investors and builders see Portland as a less desirable region for new projects — which certainly won't help the housing crunch.
The Portlandia feel-good era is over. But that leads to the obvious question: what comes next? John Tapogna of ECONorthwest has a few worthy suggestions, as does the business alliance.
On the reputational front, Portland's mayor, City Council and other leaders must do the work necessary to show that downtown and other business districts are safe places to shop. A visible goal should be to remove the fence from around the downtown courthouse and the plywood from the storefronts — and to have confidence that they won't be needed again to prevent attacks.
Out-of-control vandalism is a relatively recent concern, but homelessness is still the No. 1 issue on many Portlanders' minds. This region's residents have approved two money measures from the Metro regional government — one to build housing, and the other to provide homeless services. The money from the second measure is about to hit the streets, and Metro must ensure that these tax dollars make a noticeable difference for the homeless, and for the neighborhoods and business districts most affected by homelessness.
Without near-perfect execution of the homeless-services measure, people without shelter will continue to suffer, and everyone else will continue to see community livability deteriorate.
A related concern that must be addressed is housing supply. According to ECONorthwest's analysis, very little is in the pipeline right now. Local governments must be advocates — not obstacles — for additional housing, or this region will become increasingly unaffordable for the typical wage earner.
The Portland Business Alliance has spelled out specific steps that must be taken for the region to recover fully. Those recommendations include initiatives to clean up this city, which is embarrassingly marred with litter and debris. The PBA also calls for a halt on further tax increases until the economy rebounds — which is an especially important point following a series of voter-approved tax hikes. And, of course, no real recovery can begin anywhere until COVID-19 vaccines are widely distributed.
The PBA's roadmap toward recovery reveals how much work must be done to begin to turn Portland's economy around. The challenges are daunting, but it's also true that Portland still has advantages that other cities lack.
During the coronavirus crisis, Portlanders made a collective economic sacrifice to protect the most vulnerable populations from the virus — and it worked. Compared with rest of the nation, Portland has had half as many COVID-19 cases per capita, and the metro region saved an estimated 2,000 lives as a result.
Portlanders' willingness to accept economic hardship in exchange for less sickness and death is laudable. Now, it is time to show the same determination in rebuilding the local economy. The city must start with the basics. And what could be more fundamental than public safety, sanitation and housing? If Portland can make progress on all those fronts, the post-pandemic era — while not exactly Portlandia — still can be an economically vibrant one.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.