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Businesses hope summer parades and music festivals will show the city as more than tents and trouble.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - The PBA panel (L-R) Christina Fuller, Festival Director, Waterfront Blues Festival; Jennifer Polver, Executive Director, Pioneer Courthouse Square; Jeff Curtis, CEO, Portland Rose Festival; moderator Katie Meyer, Chief of Staff to Commissioner Mingus Mapps; (standing) Mike Wilkerson of economic forecasting company ECONorthwest.
Portland's chamber of commerce, the Portland Business Alliance, considers downtown festivals and concerts as a crucial part of reviving the city's lackluster downtown scene.

Leaders of the Rose Festival, the Waterfront Blues Festival and the programming at Pioneer Courthouse Square all stressed that they are back in business for 2022 — COVID-willing.

During an in-person afternoon forum in a ballroom in the Downtown Hilton on May 19, a panel of events organizers discussed what's coming up for the summer of 2022. The theme was "The Comeback of Downtown Portland." (The attendance was probably a third of the pre-pandemic PBA meetings, but it was also available on YouTube.)

Cleaning up filth

The forum asked, can downtown return to being "a hotbed of innovation and economic growth… once one of the city's most welcoming and lively areas, packed with personality"? How has downtown "suffered the consequences of a prolonged pandemic and reputational challenges resulting from crime, spikes in homelessness, and filth on our streets"?

Business leaders are hoping that programs such as the geodesic dome in Pioneer Courthouse Square will help. The Welcome Dome is taxpayer-funded by the City of Portland Recovery & Events Action Table. It is hosting something almost every day, from DJ sets to guided meditation, acoustic bands and readings by the Artist's Repertory Theater. Although there is often just a trickle of people in the square, the new web-based calendar at least makes planning easy, especially for people who have not ventured downtown in a while.

Bands

Jennifer Polver, Executive Director, Pioneer Courthouse Square said they have been trying to invite all sort of communities to the square especially those who might not have felt comfortable there. She added they have planned 16 concerts there this summer, which will be market in Washington and Idaho as well as Oregon.

Waterfront Blues Festival is moving back from Zydell Yards to Tom McCall Waterfront Park because the place is a key part of the event, said Christina Fuller, Festival Director, Waterfront Blues Festival.

"When you've had a cold beer, you're a little bit sunburned, the music's playing, there's the river, the bridge in the background, it feels like everything is right."

She called having 80,000 people who want to go to an event the Blues Fest's "trick shot," in that they would probably go anywhere, but that this is a chance to reintroduce people to downtown.

Jeff Curtis, CEO of the Portland Rose Festival, talked about the festival's downtown roots, with its John Yeon-designed headquarters on the waterfront, the dragon boats, Fleet Week and the fair.

Curtis said that they and the city don't have the resources, in terms of volunteers and police, to protect a 4.2-mile route, so they switched it to a shorter route on the east side. He said since much of the Grand Floral Parade is on the east side, in the Rose Quarter and the superfans on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, it made sense to go east side this year. The Starlight Parade will still be downtown, however.

"Events are critical to the revival of downtown. "With the pandemic we realized our role matters more than ever, people need events to congregate. During the pandemic it was about getting by, and the events industry was on the sidelines. It's now our turn to emerge and recreate the absolute atmosphere of people downtown at events, eating in restaurants and walking our streets."

Jennifer Polver of Pioneer Courthouse Square stressed the economic impact of events downtown, and said families have traditions that should be upheld.

Blues Festival said ticket sales, in the first eight hours, came from 30 states, which Christina Fuller said shows a hunger for travel and outdoor entertainment. "People are ready, and they haven't counted Portland out. Music is a really easy sell, so let's take the easy things like music and festivals and sell them." Fuller added, "Our job feels more important than ever."

Window dressing

Asked what the business community could do to help, Jennifer Polver said they should spread the word, buy tickets for their staff and sponsor events.

With staffing struggles, volunteers are in demand. "Put your money where your mouth is," Christine Fuller said. "Consider a volunteer group, getting your employees together for a six-hour shift for a festival downtown to realize it's OK."

Curtis said cleanups, such as SOLVE puts on, are a good idea. "Taking ownership of our city and welcoming guests" will help. "Ambiance and décor count for a lot, (such as window displays). And volunteers are more precious than ever, it takes 3,000 to put on the Rose Festival."

Mike Wilkerson of the economic forecasting company ECONorthwest drew upon a raft of graphs that showed Seattle and Portland lagging comparative cities (Nashville, Austin, Indianapolis and Denver) in economic recovery and activity downtown. And on top of that, Portland mostly lags Seattle.

ECONorthwest uses opt-in cell phone data from restaurant booking app Open Table. It shows where people linger for more than seven minutes at a time, which counts as a visit. The data showed that Portlanders are not rushing back to downtown restaurants. Workers are also not rushing back to downtown offices, in Seattle or Portland.

And while downtown residential rents dipped in 2020, when unemployment and stress were high, it never dropped much in the suburbs. While downtown rents are finally rising again (3%), they are rising higher in metro Portland, which is mostly the suburbs (19%), suggesting many have given up on downtown and prefer to work from home in the suburbs.


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