Portland makes plenty of Top 10 Most Livable lists. It also makes the lists of economically struggling metro regions. Some say it’s no coincidence.
As Labor Day arrives, eyes naturally turn to the metro area’s sagging employment rates. The region’s 10.4 percent jobless rate is well above the national average. The local economy has not grown faster than the national average in more than a decade.
Recently, critics have been growing louder and closer to home. Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Dudley and former Metro President David Bragdon have converged on the same point: Where are the jobs?
Last year, Portland’s own catalyst for economic change, the Portland Development Commission, warned that the city’s traditional focus on livability projects such as streetcars and housing had not delivered the job growth needed to stay competitive. That’s a strong statement considering that livability has become what largely defines Portland’s character.
With a region so focused on quality of life, can the city stop smelling the roses long enough to straighten up and get a job?
“The city and the region have long assumed that investments in quality of life would result in job growth in the city,” the PDC’s 2009 Economic Development Strategy said. “These investments have succeeded in generating an unprecedented influx of creative talent to the city, but that alone has not created new jobs,” it concluded.
“We stand by that,” said Peter Quinton, the PDC’s Business and Industry Division manager. “We’ve invested in light rail and big projects that increase quality of life, and now we’d like to see investment in job creation.”
Quinton admits that the PDC’s economic plan is a departure considering that for the last several decades it’s been the PDC’s job to build those transportation and housing projects it now criticizes. The strategy, adopted by City Council in July 2009, is the city’s first official economic plan in 15 years. It represents the first time in a decade that the agency has specifically targeted job growth as a major priority.
Meagan Doern of the Portland Business Alliance sees it as a step in the right direction.
“Livability is harder when you don’t have a job,” Doern said. She said past city investments have helped rank Portland alongside Austin, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle as great places to live. But while Portland might be a great place to live, working is another issue. “There’s some work we need to do in order to be at the same level as those cities in terms of job creation.”
According to the city, San Francisco and Seattle have higher median incomes, lower poverty rates and more residents between the ages of 18 and 24 enrolled in college and graduate schools.
Austin, Boston, Minneapolis and Seattle all spend more than twice as much as Portland does on programs specifically targeted at economic development.
This year the city is spending only $2.5 million on what the PDC considers economic development. That’s down from last year’s budget of $3.5 million and the 2008 figure of $4.2 million.
All the while, City Hall has pushed through projects like the $17.8 million Burnside/ Coach couplet and the $147 million East Side streetcar and committed to a $600 million green streets and bike path plan.
“It’s not either or,” said Roy Kaufman, communications director for Mayor Sam Adams. As the chief architect of the city’s budget, the mayor is responsible for setting the city’s spending priorities. “The mayor is trying to work across bureau lines to deliver a benefit with existing resources.”
Kaufman says the green streets and bike path plan is an example of the Portland Bureau of Transportation and Bureau of Environmental Services pooling their resources to build streets that reduce storm water runoff and make travel safer for cyclists.
“The streetcar is now an industry,” said Kaufman, noting that Portland is recognized as the impetus for a national streetcar revival. United Streetcar, a subsidiary of the Clackamas-based Oregon Iron Works, is now making streetcars for use around the country. “But before it was an aggressive infrastructure investment project.”
However, most would also say that streetcars are a national trend in part because of the advocacy of U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Portland and his powerful position on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 1996 to 2007.
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