Economist John Mitchell was miked and prowling the audience, a business breakfast crowd’s Oprah without the free cars or gift baskets. At one point during Mitchell’s detailed but entertaining and humorous summary of the bitter economy, a man whispered to his tablemate: “I could use a glass of wine.”
Mitchell is a well-known war horse on the speaker’s circuit. Now a consultant, he was the chief economist for U.S. Bancorp for years and has been making economic presentations around the country and region for decades. Mitchell was at the Governor Hotel presenting his 2010 economic forecast at a forum hosted by the Portland Business Alliance Wednesday, and as he paced around the room, he went through a painful recounting of where we stand.Among the litany of woe: every state has year-over-year employment declines; it's longest recession in 78 years; and the federal government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar spent. Yet, technically the recession is over with third-quarter 2009 seeing a small rise in GDP; housing might have reached its bottom; the global economy is improving; and there has been an uptick in employment over the past few months in 28 states.
Like craft beer, rich coffee and innovative public transportation, bicycling stands out as quintessentially Portland. An ironic trait given where Portlanders actually live, yet the bike business has managed to boom over the past few years. “It’s not like this town is made for cycling,” says Chris Di Stefano, director of marketing for Chris King Precision Components. “It’s not flat here and the weather is not kind. It really is the spirit of the people, and in this case, the spirit of businesspeople."
Di Stefano was one of six local industry panelists at an American Marketing Association luncheon this week in Northeast Portland. The discussion was centered on the city’s increasingly popular bike culture, what makes Portland a major hub and how all kinds of businesses can capitalize on the ever-growing market.
There’s no question Portland has established itself as a national leader in bike-friendliness, but the world is taking notice, too. “I moved here six years ago [for] the promise of what Portland was becoming, and the more I travel around the country and around the world for cycling, everyone wants to talk about Portland,” Di Stefano says. And he says the local industry’s extraordinary growth over the past five years has as much to do with straight-up biking businesses (manufacturers, parts retailers, etc.) as with bike-related services, such as panelist Charlie Wicker’s Trailhead Coffee Roasters, which delivers coffee throughout the Portland area on bike.
State labor economist Art Ayre took the stage before Portland’s City Club last Friday to try to explain Oregon’s persistent problem with high unemployment. It’s easy enough to understand why statewide unemployment shot up from 5 percent in early 2007 to 12 percent in early 2009. The economy was crashing and jobs were vanishing everywhere. But why was Oregon among the hardest hit, once again? Why has Oregon exceeded the national average for unemployment for 25 of the past 31 years?
Ayre would seem to be the perfect person to answer that question. He’s been Oregon’s employment economist since 1999, and he is one of the most studious and well-informed public servants we have. His inquiry into the matter ran deep and broad. But his answers were disappointing.
Ayre’s research found that population growth, demographic trends and state tax policies have limited if any impact on jobless rates. He also reported that in his opinion, Oregon’s higher-than-average minimum wage has minimal effect, and the same goes for the decline of the timber industry.
I caught up with Nick Furman while he was driving up the Oregon Coast this morning, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that he was liking what he was seeing: a gorgeous, clear day out on the water, boats working relatively calm seas, fishermen hauling in pot after pot boiling with Dungeness crabs.
“It’s a great sight,” said Furman, executive director of the Charleston-based Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. “We’re off to a good start.”
With the unfortunate exception of the Manatee, a small wooden boat that sunk in Coos Bay (everyone was rescued, thankfully), Oregon’s healthiest fishery is looking healthier than ever this December. The price to the fisherman is starting at $1.75 per pound and expected to rise as the season progresses. The weather has been cooperative and boats are coming to shore early, loaded to the decks with big, meaty crabs.
I didn’t throw myself against glass doors on Black Friday to be one of the first shoppers to snag one of those freaky little robot hamsters ("Zhu Zhu Pets don’t poop, die or stink, but they are still a riot of motion and sound!”). And I didn’t spend all my time surfing the web on Cyber Monday. I actually was working at my computer all day (really, boss, I was).
I’ve basically stopped shopping, and I’m beginning to feel like a Communist since I’m being told that my willingness to spend, even if it’s a stupid thing to do, is the only thing that will save the country. And now I have those poor rich bastards in Dubai to worry about.
My fellow business and news writers have breathlessly charted the biggest shopping days of the year this past week as if they were witnessing the end of the world. Will the American consumer come back in force? Will they spend more or less? What will happen if they don’t grossly spend beyond their means and the world economy sinks even lower!? I thought at one point a TV interviewer was going to pass out from the anxiety of it all. Santa, please bring me one TV news show that knows the difference between covering frenzied Wal-Mart shoppers and covering Hurricane Katrina.
I launched Jobs Watch during the darkest days of the recession with the goal of identifying businesses that are strategically positioned to lead Oregon out of the recession. I’m not talking about cutting jobs to achieve higher profits in the manner of Hewlett-Packard, but rather creating jobs by smartly tapping into hot markets. It’s no easy task to grow in an economy still wobbling near a precipice, but it can be done.
So who’s doing it in Oregon?
I attempted to answer that question in our December cover story by focusing on six companies that are charging into 2010 with a profound sense of optimism. The companies I chose are Ziba Design, Smarsh, New Seasons Market, TriQuint Semiconductors, HemCon and SolarWorld. Obviously, that list is by no means complete, but it makes for a compelling lineup. The niches these companies are exploiting and even reinventing are hardly uniform (everything from natural foods to radiofrequency technology) but as businesses they share some common strengths: inspired leadership, a sense of purpose and a savvy understanding of what lies ahead.
Okay, so we get the point: The business summit is not a high priority for our readers, at least not for the readers who vote in our online polls. Last week’s poll about the Oregon Business Council’s decision to cancel this year’s summit drew a mere 57 votes. The answer that earned the most votes (44%) was, “Doesn’t matter. Wasn’t productive.”
Like Peter DeFazio, I’m no economist. And I have some serious questions about some of the ways our public money has been spent in the name of rescuing the economy. But I completely disagree with DeFazio’s call for the resignation of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
DeFazio, the hard-nosed veteran Democrat from Springfield, offered up his view that Geithner should be fired during an interview Thursday with the Wall Street Journal. His reasoning: “All the gambling on Wall Street is doing nothing to put people back to work in America and rebuild our economy.” This made immediate news because a lot of people, myself included, are fed up with hearing about how well the economy is recovering while the nation — and Oregon — continue to lose jobs.
But let’s pause for a minute and consider what Geithner inherited, and where we stand today. I don’t know about you, but I had a strong case of economic doom one year ago. Between the headlines oozing out from the Lehman collapse and the AIG “rescue,” and the impending potential collapse of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bank of America and Citigroup, I was losing faith in the financial system. I don’t have that feeling today. The markets are coming back and Oregon’s unemployment rate is finally easing back down, albeit painfully slowly.
The young Lopez brothers were standing by themselves at our table when I showed up Wednesday morning for the Arts Breakfast of Champions, an annual celebration of businesses that support the arts. The brothers — Joaquin, 34, and Salvador, 32 — are small businessmen. La Bonita, their family-owned Mexican restaurant on NE Alberta, employs 12 people, four of them family members. They opened La Bonita 10 years ago. “At first, it made $100 a month,” said Joaquin. “Now it provides livable wages for our family.”
For several years, Joaquin, the owner, has donated free catering to the Miracle Theatre for opening nights and other events. Those donations allow the theater, located on SE Stark, to keep prices affordable so families of all incomes can attend. The restaurant has also donated to other groups such as the Latino gay pride festival. How does a small operation like La Bonita find the time and resources to do this? “I just do it,” he said.
It was a morning full of stories like that; stepping up and doing something even if you are small, even if you don't have unlimited resources. Business for Culture & the Arts called them "the heroes" in honoring them, and that seems like the right title. They might not have the deeply appreciated big pockets of top business donors such as Bank of America, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo (which collectively gave $1.4 million this past year), but they help lift the arts in their own heroic ways.
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- Jobs Watch: What's impeding progress?
- Editor's Notes: A declaration of Independence
- The OB Poll: The recession isn't over
- Editor's Notes: The bottom line on nonprofits