Portland International Airport: new concourse, few travelers
The latest part of PDXNext, the five-part expansion of Portland International Airport, had a soft opening earlier this year.
Concourse E has been expanded by 830 feet and is the new home for Southwest Airlines, the airport's second-largest carrier after Alaska Airlines.
The space is light and airy, with a bluer, more natural light than the rest of the airport because of the glazing.
The trapezoid cross-section frames the view of Mount Hood. "The Sky and The City," a two-part art installation by internationally known artist Jacob Hashimoto, hangs from the ceiling.
However, with PDX currently running at 27% of passenger load compared to 2019, the new concourse reveals a tale of two economies. The construction world (like the stock market) is defying the COVID-19 recession. The bulk of the work was finished on time and on budget. However, the tenant improvements remain unfinished because the tenants — the bars, coffee shops and retailers — are in trouble at their other outlets.
Right now, if you want breakfast as you wait for your 6:30 flight to LaGuardia, you'd better like Tillamook products (cheeseburgers, grilled cheese and ice cream), or hang back at the Hopworks Urban Brewery. If you want coffee, the proposed Stumptown is an empty space, and the stylish bar Juliett, which is supposed to take advantage of the view of Mount Hood, is just a rectangle of different-colored carpet and some placeholder graphics.
Some of the remaining $2 billion in bids are going out this fall as part of the airport work, PDXNext — a sign that publicly funded projects have life even when the private sector falters.
Act locally, think globally
PDX is proud of having interesting local concessions rather than the usual airport chains like Hudson News and Cinnabon, and that has given it some character.
But the retail recession that blights downtown Portland is well-represented at the airport. The Bambuza Vietnam Kitchen unit looks abandoned, its steel studs and sheetrock showing. Tender Loving Empire, the original "put a bird on it" novelties store, is just a decorative facade.
"We were expecting to have nine or 10 different concessions open on opening day and, obviously, the pandemic has changed some of the business plans for most companies," said Kama Simonds, a spokesperson for the Port of Portland.
Currently, PDX has just one international flight, and that is to Guadalajara in Mexico. The much anticipated 12th flight, British Airways nonstop to London, never got started because of COVID-19.
PDX is 95% a destination airport, as opposed to a hub where people change planes. As for PDX seeing big crowds again, Simonds said, "There was definitely an uptick around the Fourth of July at the holiday weekend. But we wish we had a crystal ball. On a positive note, we're not one of the 22 states with a quarantine order, like the New York tri-state area, Alaska or Hawaii." Such states ask travelers to quarantine for 14 days, so they don't trigger a new wave of infections.
She added that Southwest Airlines officials said when they see an uptick of cases in big swaths of the country, it does start to impact travel numbers. And they should know, Southwest Airlines is based in Dallas, Texas.
PDX doesn't use the prime concessionaire model — one company that runs all the shops. The airport has direct contracts with the different brands.
"It works to our advantage in the types of restaurants and businesses we're able to attract. It's also infinitely more challenging because you're not dealing with one person in a contract, you're dealing with 65 or 75," Simonds said.
They favor independent, local companies. "Those are the same businesses that have been particularly challenged in some ways. So we're hoping, as travel numbers keep increasing as economic conditions improve, that they will open their businesses," she said.
In common with much of the economy, everything is on hold. There's no deadline by which the stores must open. "There were things written into their contracts originally, but nobody wrote a pandemic into a contract," Simonds said. The Port of Portland is keeping in touch with the business owners. "We also understand all of their business challenges."
The proposed restaurant Juliett is part of the Lightning Bar Collective, which runs several fashionable Portland bars, including Century, Victoria, the Bye and Bye and the Sweet Hereafter. The name is based on aviation call signs for letters like Mike, November, Tango, and will have a theme of female aviators. Being on Oregon Health Authority's list of top places for spreading the coronavirus, any bar looks vulnerable to closure. It's hard to see how Juliett can open soon without a subsidy.
Closures are not limited to Concourse E. Currently, 33 out of 65 of the airport's concessions are back and running.
Other stores that are open include Calliope (gifts) and Your Northwest Travel Mart. The Tillamook Market is the dairy company's first retail store outside of the creamery on the coast. From a tiny space with a handful of tables outside, it has begun selling its greatest hits such as cheese curds in a bag and blocks of cheese — all airport security-friendly and ready to take on the plane.
Perhaps because Tillamook is has been expanding its brand nationally the past two years, it got the space built out and opened. There are downsides to having a store at the airport, such as security clearance, super early hours and a difficult commute for minimum wage workers.
On the other hand, they have a captive audience who can spread the brand throughout the country. (Tillamook also is sponsoring the children's play area, which has not materialized yet, probably because it would not be allowed to open for virus hygiene reasons.)
"It's one of the busiest concourses in PDX," Mohammed Ali, director of the creamery at Tillamook PDX, told the Business Tribune. "About 6 million people will go through this concourse once it's returned to a normal season." That compares to 1.5 million a year at the creamery's huge visitor center on the Oregon coast.
The prize for retailers remains enticing. The runway is ready. But no one knows when the holding pattern will end.
We spoke to Michelle Vo, a principal and vice president at Hennebery Eddy Architects, who is the project manager for the Terminal Balancing and Concourse E Extension project, just before the opening.
"I have been following the construction cam and I have seen a ton of photos," Vo said. "It's been awhile since I've been out there, so I am so excited to be in the finished version."
Despite a few stores not being open and some of the seating being spread out (for social distancing) the project went well.
"We put together, really focused, the core team and each week we talk about the COVID impact and what we're going to do," Vo said.
She said architects have been experimenting with working digitally for years but the pandemic brought it all to a head. "This project is nearly paperless. It was like we were operating with 60 field offices" Vo said of everyone working from home.
The team also talks about what they miss about working together in an office. This includes working side by side, and even sharing paper and drawing overlays on one another's work. Real-time shared collaborative drawing software does not yet work properly. "And there's just really no substitute for getting your hands on whatever the material is that you're contemplating for the building," she said.
On the other hand, Vo has been "incredibly productive," because she hasn't had to commute and there are fewer interruptions. The firm is adept at running video meetings, which are more efficient because they have a preset ending time.
"And I can do them anywhere," Vo said.
Every two weeks she fetches groceries for her father and stepmother. "I've done meetings in my car (a Tesla Model 3) in the parking lot at Costco. I'm talking and contributing. I'm not presenting, but I've got my laptop open on the hotspot on my phone. I'm still on the laptop, with full-size screen, not a tiny phone screen, so if someone's sharing their screen I can read the information. That kind of flexibility hasn't happened before."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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