Downtown Portland and its surrounding neighborhoods are facing serious problems, but they are not as bad as the national news media makes them sound, and they not insurmountable — although it will take full community response to overcome them.
That was the consensus of a diverse panel of business owners and managers who spoke at a remote Portland Business Alliance forum on Wednesday, April 21. Titled "Re-Activating Portland's Urban Core," it focused on how to overcome the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that closed offices and increased homelessness, and the months-long series of protests that frequently ended with violence.
Later that day, the City Council approved $750,000 to kickstart the citywide Clean and Green cleanup program proposed by Mayor Ted Wheeler. It will support volunteers, nonprofits and other organizations who will remove the trash that has accumulated throughout Portland during the pandemic. That is a goal favored by the panelists.
"COVID was the first punch, and it really shut down the city. Then there was rioting over a long period of time. So there were no crowds for the businesses that depend on them, and fear of coming downtown," said Jim Mark, CEO of Melvin Mark Companies, a large commercial real estate and brokerage firm.
According to Mark, he has gotten calls from people who live out of town who believe downtown is still shut down and under siege, based on what they see on the news.
"I tell them it's not like that," said Mark, who still goes into work every day just a few blocks from the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, where many of the most violent confrontation took place last year. "I walk around every day and frequent the restaurants and stores."
Jordan Carter, co-owner of the Produce Portland clothing store at Northwest Fourth and Davis, agrees. He's had vendors ask him to pay for shipments in advance after seeing a story about Portland on the news, even though his business is many blocks from where protesters repeatedly clashed with federal officers guarding the courthouse.
"The Portland Bureau of Transportation has approved summer-long street closures near my store so we can have a street fair with 50 to 60 vendors," said Jordan, who is also a clothing designer.
Jessica Curtis, the general manager of Pioneer Place, admitted she worried when a mob protesting the fatal Portland police shooting of Robert Delgado in Lents Park set fire to her building on Friday, April 16.
"But we're open and welcoming shoppers now," said Curtis.
Judie Dunken, principal broker The Dunken Group real estate firm in the Pearl District, admitted that such incidents have damaged Portland's image.
"We have a very bad reputation across the country right now. But we can change that perception by focusing on the good things that are happening."
According to the panel, the good things include the coming together of government, business and community leaders to figure out how to reopen downtown and keep it open. Some of the planning is being down by five "action tables" convened by Mayor Ted Wheeler that are addressing issues ranging from recovering Portland's reputation to helping businesses reopen safely.
Businesses, organization and nonprofits have also come together to create the Rose City Downtown Collective to help clean up the urban core.
"Between COVID 19 and the ongoing unrest, downtown Portland is at a historic crossroads and at risk of becoming another abandoned and dormant city center that once was. Our economy as a state and a city will not be the same, and will not be able to rebuild without intentional support of our downtown area," its website reads.
Volunteer clean-up efforts are also picking up. They include the Adopt One Block program started by native Portlander Frank Moscow, which has already signed up enough volunteers to maintain 2,000 blocks, and regularly scheduled downtown cleanups by SOLVE, the long-running nonprofit organization.
The panelists said they are counting on the Metro homeless services measure approved at the May 2020 election to help reduce the number of people living on downtown streets, however. Informal counts conducted by the Downtown Portland Clean & Safe program found a dramatic increase in tents on city sidewalks and public spaces in the Old Town/Chinatown area after the pandemic started and the Centers for Disease Control said homeless camps should not be swept.
"The homeless situation is tough. We need to get people help now or it will just continue to get worse and worse," said Mark.
The panel was moderated by University of Oregon Portland Vice Provost Jane Gordon.
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