Portland's mayor-to-be offers a sneak preview of his economic plan, short on strategy but long on hope.
BY ABRAHAM HYATT
When Portland city commissioner Sam Adams assumes the mantle of mayor on Jan. 1, he’ll also shoulder a heavy leadership burden: developing an economic plan that pulls together the city’s myriad, sometimes divergent, economic factions. Adams began working on the fundamentals of that plan in mid 2008. In it he lays out 10 ideas that range from easing the tax burden for small businesses to expanding workforce training to increasing exports. The first step on the list, however, is creating an economic advisory council made up of community, business, civic, academic, labor and government leaders. In mid September, one day after he returned from a trip to China, Adams talked with Oregon Business about how that council would create a definition for success — one that would ostensibly guide the state’s biggest city and biggest economic engine for decades to come.
Your draft has a lot of specifics that you want to accomplish, but it reads more like a set of tactics rather than a vision of where the city should be headed. Explain why.
My goal is to improve upon our business success and to improve the economic security of our families in this region. But we have some glaring deficits that we need to address. We need to first recognize that we don’t have an economic development strategy and we haven’t ever had one. We don’t have a working definition of what economic success and individual and family prosperity is. During the good times that’s not a problem — a strong economy hides a thousand economic sins and a thousand problems.
But when times got tough, as was the case last summer, the previous mayor basically got into a public pissing match with the most visible leader in the business community, the president of the Portland Business Alliance. One was saying that Portland is a bad place to do business and the other saying no, the fundamentals of Portland’s economy are strong. But neither could point to any sort of standard to back up their definitions of success. My approach may be boring, but it’s incredibly important to define business success and individual and family prosperity and then work backward from that to figure out what it will take to get us there.
How long does it take to develop something like that? How long will it take to see the fruits of that planning?
I’d like to see an agreement on those definitions within the first 180 days of my term. It’s wonky, it’s boring and it is absolutely positively what we’ve been missing. If you don’t get the accountability you can’t make meaningful strategies, you can’t judge what’s going on, and you get an economic development agency like PDC [Portland Development Commission] that sort of lurches from one idea to the next depending on who’s got their hands on the reins.
What else will happen in that time frame?
A lot. We’re working on an export strategy, which the city has never had. We’re going to get out our initial targeted-industries strategies. We’re going to open the interim Portland Oregon Sustainability Institute within the first 180 days. We are going to find out what local businesses need to know to succeed around the world. A lot of the work contained in these draft strategies we’re going to finalize. We’ll be able to implement some of them within the first 180 days.
There are a lot of possibilities in your plan. But there are a lot of different voices that will be involved. How will you get a consensus on even the most basic elements?
Well, we’re going to get agreement on the facts. And you know, my job is to push, cajole, inspire and charm people into seeing where we’re really at and where we need to go. If they’ve got a more clear definition of where we are, if they’ve got a better idea of where we need to go, then I want to hear from them. I’m going to lay out ideas for moving forward and invite other people to come up with even better ideas, but we are going to hold ourselves accountable with a plan.
Did you work in conjunction with any business, community or labor groups when you were developing this initial plan?
Absolutely. It’s definitely been formed by the work I’ve done with Sheila Martin [director of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies] at PSU. We pulled together economists to help us work on this definition of success. It’s definitely been formed by Andrew McGough [executive director of Worksource Inc.], and by the folks at the PDC who I’ve known and worked with when I was with [former mayor Vera Katz]. It’s definitely been formed by labor people like Judy O’Connor [executive secretary-treasurer of Northwest Oregon Labor Council]. It’s a starting point, a beginning place.
Critics have tried to cast you and the Portland business community as being at odds with each other. Is that an image you’ll try to change?
I would question the sanity of anyone who agrees with me on every issue all the time. I have disagreements with folks across the spectrum on a variety of issues and that’s true with the business community as well. Comparatively speaking, I think Portland’s business community is very progressive on a lot of issues. Whether we agree or disagree I think it’s a good partner with us on most issues. My job is to figure out what I think is the right thing to do. There are lots of people trying to figure that out, but my job is to get stuff done, and you only do that by having strong and diverse partnerships.
You’ve said you’re going to wait to take your transportation plan to voters until the economy gets better. You’ve also talked about trying to convince the Legislature to help fund it with an increase in vehicle registration fees. But Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the Columbia River Project are also after that money. If the economy continues at the pace it’s going, what’s next for the plan?
The challenge is rising fuel costs and the fact that American households are spending more of their household budgets on transportation. Businesses are spending more of their budgets on transportation. And then you’ve got public transportation providers where the costs of maintaining the system are more expensive than ever. I consider this a delay until economic times get better. But I’m not giving up.
We have to be honest with folks. We’re not going to climb out of that maintenance and safety backlog without more resources. I’m going to be asking both the businesses and local citizens to step up and really invest in the basic fundamental component of our economy. We’re the third-most street-dependent region in the United States so inoperable bridges and congestion are not just an inconvenience or an issue of safety. It’s a fundamental threat to our basic economy. I’m not going to let this issue slip away.
Besides what’s outlined in your plan, what other specific economic strategies are you in the process of developing?
Tax fairness. The fact of the matter is that too high of a portion of the tax burden has been on smaller, locally owned, locally focused businesses. And that’s not just me talking — that was first identified 13 years ago in a review of the city’s business licenses. It’s only in the past two years that something has been done about it. At the same time, though, there are a thousand businesses in the city of Portland that gross more than $20 million and that pay a whopping $100 business tax. And that’s not fair. I intend to raise that minimum.
Also, in the past two weeks I’ve angered the realtors of this city by removing a loophole that allowed them to pay no business-license fees since the ’80s. Why? Because in the ’80s they had a very good lobbyist that got them exempt under state law. Well, bully for them, but it isn’t fair that they don’t pay for basic city services. So in the process of creating tax fairness I’m sure I will be loved by some and hated by others, but I’m sticking with some tried and true principles: The more you make, the more you pay; the more you use, the more you pay.
When you talk about defining economic success, are there other cities in the nation that you think have done that successfully and then been able to act on it?
It’s actually cities like Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne does a much more admirable job than we do in term of figuring out the data they need to watch, and then watching it. They understand where they’re at, what their competitive opportunities and challenges are, and they use that to develop a baseline and actually monitor their progress. We don’t have that here. I can’t underscore enough that you get what you plan for. Our work has been ad hoc at best. We have some really good project work but what has been missing is that overall understanding of where we’re at.
You’ve talked about families and working wages and other broad ideas. Get down to specifics. How will you prioritize some very specific things?
There will be a lot of individual opportunities but developing our relationship with China and developing our design apparel sector are the greatest opportunities for improving our traded sector. I will tell you having spent almost two weeks in China that the place is an environmental disaster. And they need what we have in terms of sustainable design, in terms of urban planning, in terms of green and sustainable architecture and land-use planning. I mean, it’s a huge market — they’re going to build 40 brand-new cities of one million people or more in the next two decades. I sat next to a major developer at lunch and he’s like, “We can’t hire enough building designers.” And this particular developer has embraced the LEED concept out of the United States. A: He believes in it; and B: he knows that if he does that he’s going to get a higher percentage of foreign buyers in his projects. So there’s an opportunity for little old Portland, little bitty Portland.
At the same time we have Adidas, Nike, Columbia Sportswear; we have [footwear maker] Keen. These are four or five of some of the biggest apparel firms and they’re importing their design talent. They can be partners with us to make sure we have a national-class design school. I’m interested in partnering up with the best European or Asian design schools to have an outpost here in Portland. The global economy plays a very big role in my mind because — whether I like it or not is not the question — my job is to make sure Portland and the Portland region and the state succeed in it. I intend to do whatever I can from the public side to provide leadership or to use this office as a bully pulpit and get the players to work together. If we’re building those partnerships then I think we can move quickly in terms of being best in our class in some areas. You know, if we’re not best in our class in the green and sustainable industries then shame on us — it was ours to lose.
What scares you when you look at the next few years?
Are you trying to make me cry? Is that a Barbara Walters question? [Laughs.] My greatest anxiety is that Portlanders won’t recognize the importance of business success, that businesses won’t recognize the importance of individual and family prosperity, and that we as a city won’t come together to recognize and to act on the importance of both. There’s a hangover from the way economies used to work. It used to be that when a business was profitable, you really didn’t have to worry that much about people in this city. But now business can be incredibly profitable and not have a lot of jobs at home.
So it’s not enough anymore to have successful businesses, although that is very important, and I embrace that. But as a leader in a community that’s in the global economy, I have to worry that somehow, someway I have to have living-wage jobs in Portland. I somehow have to convince the economic justice people, the affordable housing people, unions — I have to convince them of the need to have successful businesses. And I have to convince business owners and business advocacy groups and investors of the importance of having a population that has living-wage jobs and economic security. That is the crux, the leadership crux, that I face.
Have an opinion? E-mail