Critics say working class ignored as city favors white-collar jobs

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Steve Hughes, state director of Oregon Working Families, stands in front of OHSUs South Waterfront building, near a proposed facility for the Knight Cancer Research Center. Hughes says city leaders need to pay more attention to fostering jobs for working-class people. It’s hard to say no when Oregon’s richest man offers half a billion dollars in matching money.

So Portland’s city councilors recently gave their full blessing to a $200 million state funding request — before the Legislature this month — to support Phil Knight’s audacious bid to expand OHSU’s Knight Cancer Research Center.

A world-class medical research facility on Portland’s South Waterfront could be a “game-changer for Portland,” says Mayor Charlie Hales, bringing nearly 400 permanent jobs plus spinoff benefits.

Just weeks earlier, Hales rejected the Port of Portland’s request to tone down $82 million in conditions imposed by planning commissioners before the port could develop marine trade terminals on West Hayden Island. The port says those would create between 937 and 1,175 family-wage, blue-collar jobs.

“It’s not a lot of economic development for the trouble it’s caused,” Hales said in December, alluding to opposition from Hayden Island neighbors and environmental groups. The port project would only yield “a few jobs after the construction period,” he said.

The contrast may say a lot about what type of city Portland intends to become, and what types of jobs it wants to foster.

Some see a double standard.

“It hurts my heart that the city races out to embrace one, and just honestly turns its back on the other,” says Bernie Bottomly, the Portland Business Alliance vice president for government affairs and economic development.

Bottomly says the city is practicing “job gentrification” by snubbing opportunities for blue-collar jobs at the Portland Harbor, while hotly pursuing “creative” and other white-collar jobs. The city needs both types of jobs, he says.

Portlandia ideal?

Steve Hughes, state director of Oregon Working Families, has similar concerns. “We’re believing our own propaganda, to a certain extent, about what the vaunted Portlandia is becoming, at the expense of working people,” Hughes says. “We’re not taking care of the bread and butter economy here, and instead focusing on the shiny things.”

It’s hard for anyone to argue against having a world-class cancer research center in Portland, as OHSU and Knight promise from the $1 billion to $1.2 billion expansion. Even if its goals fall short, notes Hales spokesman Dana Haynes, “you’re still doing godly work.”

But OHSU made unfulfilled promises before to jumpstart a major biotech industry in Portland when it landed $200 million in state funding in 2001. And it’s worth noting that cancer researchers at a world-class center likely will be recruited from elsewhere, unlike workers hired for the trade terminals.

The Portland Business Alliance heartily endorses the $200 million funding request for the Knight center, Bottomly says, and agrees with Hales that it’s a crucial opportunity for the city.

But he says the city can’t neglect jobs for the shrinking middle class and working class, especially the kind of harbor and trade-related jobs that helped put Portland on the economic map.

Portlanders with high school diplomas might fetch jobs at the Knight center, if they’re lucky, in security or maintenance, paying $18,000 to $23,000 a year, Bottomly says. Those same people could land jobs paying $45,000 to $50,000 at port terminals on West Hayden Island, he says. Longshore union jobs often pay twice that amount.

The city’s new land use plan talks a lot about “equity,” Bottomly notes. “The city has some hard thinking to do. Is it really invested in that language?”

Hughes likens the city’s neglect of the working class to its longstanding treatment of East Portland neighborhoods, which are predominantly poor and working class and, increasingly, attracting more immigrants, refugees and people of color.

“There’s a disproportionate amount of money going to the parts of town that are the most affluent and the most gentrified,” Hughes says. “You get a tale of two cities.”

Mayor responds

Hales says it’s “nonsense” and a “totally false proposition” to contrast his positions on West Hayden Island and the Knight Cancer Research Center. “Those aren’t mutually exclusive,” he says.

The Port of Portland projects there’d ultimately be 2,340 to 3,613 new jobs from the West Hayden Island development, once indirect and other spinoff jobs are counted. Hales was unconvinced.

“It was going to be a bulk facility,” he says. “Go look at a bulk facility and count the jobs.”

The mayor also points to a resurgence of industrial and manufacturing jobs right now in Portland, ticking off corporate names such as Vigor, Zidell and Gunderson. The city is subsidizing Daimler Trucks North America’s new headquarters on Swan Island, Hales says, which will help bolster that company’s truck manufacturing and engineering jobs. The city also is supporting a new worker training center on Swan Island, he says.

“Our manufacturing sector is doing well, and is doing well with the support of the city of Portland,” Hales says. “One of the best things about Portland is that we still make real things and sell them to the world.”

Hales acknowledges that OHSU made promises about the biotech industry that never materialized, something economist Joe Cortright and others warned about. “For 10 years, it looked like the scoffers were right,” Hales says.

However, he sees the expansion of the Knight Cancer Research Center as a way to double-down on that bet and finally realize the city’s biotech dream.

An earlier Knight donation to the cancer center helped land some 100 talented researchers here, Hales says. Now a $200 million state contribution will enable OHSU to build necessary facilities on the downtown waterfront, he says.

That can bring spin-off, locally produced cancer-fighting drugs, technologies and techniques, Hales says. The only reason it won’t happen, he says, “is if we think small and blow the opportunity.”

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