The end of Halloween heralds the unofficial beginning of the holiday retail rush, and signs of the season can already be seen sprouting throughout downtown Portland; miniature Christmas trees line the sidewalk around Pioneer Square, and department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue are already decking out their storefronts with holiday displays. Yet the number of vacant storefronts in the retail core is a telling indication of how tough 2009 has been on downtown businesses.
New openings have subsided but there are a few notable exceptions; Kettleman Bagel Company opened a third location downtown this summer, and from what I was told there, the store sees a regular morning and noontime rush from the neighboring high-rise business folk. Another recent addition with potential is Simon and Helen Director Park at Southwest Park and Taylor, a new urban plaza that officially opened last week. Located just a couple blocks away from Pioneer Courthouse Square, Director Park is like an artfully remodeled nook down the hall from Portland’s Living Room, featuring a glass canopy and a still-to-be-completed fountain and café.
Neighboring businesses that have endured construction noise and street closures will welcome the prospect of increased traffic and activity in the area, and a quick stop at Flying Elephants Delicatessen showed that the store’s prime location along the new park’s perimeter is certainly giving it a boost. But how much will the park really do for business? It’s difficult to tell so early on, and judging by the sparse foot traffic across the park’s gleaming expanse yesterday, Portlanders largely still don’t know the park is open, or just aren’t coming to it. More ominous is the long-awaited but still-delayed Park Avenue West building one block away, where Tom Moyer’s vision of a 22-story mixed-use tower remains mired in the muck of the recession.
Salem always has had a bit of a “pass-through” problem to contend with. Many of the state workers live somewhere else, and if you come down from Portland just to do business, which a lot of people do during the legislative session, you take a fast road into the city core, and then speed out again. This drive-by view of Salem doesn’t give you a full view of some impressive progress being made in the state’s capital, despite the recession.
Anytime I head to Salem, I always make it a point to spend time with Mayor Janet Taylor. The chic high-energy mayor knows her city inside out and on this trip the discussion was more poignant than previous ones. Taylor, who is 68, announced in mid-September that she would retire in December 2010, having by then served four two-year terms.
As we ate lunch at the Phoenix Grand Hotel, itself a point of pride for downtown redevelopment, she outlined what she would focus on in the next year: basically, jobs, jobs and jobs. It isn’t much different than the focus of her past three terms, and it’s refreshing to hear a politician’s understanding that without enough jobs in your community, nothing else really matters. Core issues of poverty, education and health all depend on being able to earn a livable wage.
Software-industry veteran Michael Hoffman was unexpectedly laid off a year ago, but he wasted no time getting back in the game. After 129 days, 74 job applications, 268 emails, 109 phone calls, four career fairs/networking events, 17 phone interviews and eight in-person interviews, Hoffman finally found a job as a senior project manager at Jeppeson Sanderson.
With so much experience in the job-seeking scene, Hoffman has a good sense of which tactics are effective and which are a waste of time, ideas he shared at a seminar this week hosted by the Rose City Software Process Improvement Network (SPIN) at Portland’s World Trade Center. The reality of the job landscape is a bleak one: As of August 2009, the ratio of job postings to unemployed people in Portland is 1-to-7 according to Bureau of Labor Statistics cited on Indeed.com. While that’s not as bad as cities like Miami and Detroit (ratios of 1-to-11 and 1-to-17, respectively), Portland’s competitiveness still outpaces most other major U.S. cities. So what are the best ways for Portlanders to go after opportunities and sell themselves effectively?
As far as online tools, Hoffman prefers using sites like Indeed.com and Craigslist for broad searches; Indeed aggregates job postings from other major sites and Craigslist is often used by smaller companies who don’t want to pay to advertise on the larger sites. In-person search activities like job fairs can be helpful, Hoffman says, but you don’t always have the opportunity to do much for yourself. “When I went to a job fair and there were at least a couple thousand people and you stand in line for half an hour to 45 minutes to have a two to three minute talk, it just becomes a little bit demoralizing,” Hoffman said. However, you can make the most of networking events by having unique conversations with reps that will help them remember you later. And if you’re at a busy single-company event, seek out the reps who aren’t talking to anybody, even if they don’t represent your field; as Hoffman learned, those conversations can lead to an interview with the right person.
The latest numbers show that Oregon has lost 124,300 jobs since I took this job in December of 2007. Clearly my writing is not good for the state’s economy. So forgive me if I dispense with the cheerleading and point out a few observations that give me reason for concern.
It starts with the banks. Lake Oswego-headquartered West Coast Bank is the latest to receive an ominously worded “cease and desist” order from the FDIC. That makes three important regional banks struggling for survival, if you add Columbia River Bank of The Dalles and Bank of the Cascades in Bend. Plus the complex situation of ShoreBank Pacific, which is wholly owned by a holding company operating under a cease and desist order of its own. These banks have to improve their capital positions or else, and that means they will be more reluctant to loan than ever.
Then there’s retail. Is it me or is the premature Christmas glitter looking even more desperate than usual this season? I realize that retail drives the economy, 70% of which is based on consumer spending. But is it really the duty of every American to purchase all the world’s plastic junk? Consumers lack confidence for a reason. With so many companies cutting costs, salaries and jobs, how much longer can consumers be expected to over-spend?
Tucked away among the restaurants and shops in Portland’s Old Town is NedSpace, a co-working office space for startups that combines old red brick architecture with a contemporary Ikea feel. A small crowd was gathered there last night for what looked like an after-work party, but the ambience was in contrast to the serious reason for the meeting. Most of the people were members of the startup community and were there to hear arguments against the controversial business taxes recently passed by the Legislature.
The meeting was organized by members of Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes, a coalition of businesses and individuals that collected double the amount of signatures required to get the measures onto January’s ballot — the first time Oregon will vote on a statewide referendum since 2004. Two tax measures are at issue: One raises the minimum corporate tax and one raises personal income tax on the highest-earning individuals.
Bob Wiggins, managing partner of Mount Hood Equity Partners, named several reasons why the issue should matter to startups. In addition to the implications of the taxes themselves — raising the personal income tax alone would make Oregon’s the highest in the country — Wiggins mentioned Oregon’s lack of capital-gain deduction in its income tax and the tax-free appeal of nearby Vancouver, Wash., as added factors that will drive business out of Oregon if the measures are not defeated. “This is as bad as it could possibly get for the startup community,” Wiggins said. “All [these factors] are designed, it seems, to shoot us in the foot.”
You’ve probably heard the one about the Portland company that raised $35 million to set lofty new standards for business ethics and sustainability in the fashion industry, only to go down in flames a year after launching. What you might not know is that Nau is back.
I spent an hour and a half yesterday with Mark Galbraith, Nau’s general manager, an energetic veteran of the apparel industry who left a nice job at Patagonia to create something ambitious. It’s been a dizzying and at times terrifying ride, but he told me he has no regrets. “In retrospect what we tried to do was too big and too complex,” he said. “But we were following our ideals and our aspiration to do things better.”
We were sitting in the Lizard Lounge in the Pearl District, next door to the collaborative design studio where Nau does its thing. I noticed that the rack directly behind Galbraith, next to where a couple of hipsters were dinking a ping pong ball back and forth, featured new markdowns of 50% to 75% off. But Galbraith said sales this fall have been strong. He expects Nau to turn profitable over the next fiscal year.
It was 7:30 a.m. on a recent morning and my brain fog was still thick. I was invited to attend the Portland chapter meeting of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, whose speaker that morning was Mark Moses, a CEO coach and motivational speaker from Irvine, Calif.
I sat next to an owner of a local roofing company, and as we ate, he told me that his very small business was about to go bankrupt. He had started it a few years ago when the housing boom was still surging. I asked him what he would do, and he shrugged and said he would just start looking for a job, any job, because keeping his family safe was the most important thing. The room was full of people from real estate-related companies, and everyone was feeling the pain.
Moses then got up to deliver his spiel. He started his first company, a painting service, when he was 19; sold it in 1992 and founded Platinum Capital Group, a mortgage company that despite its “ups and downs” was wildly successful. Then his son got cancer, but thankfully recovered, and he began competing in Ironman events to raise money for charity, eventually selling his business in 2006 and moving on to teach other CEOs how to be successful. Motivational tagline: “On your mark, get set, grow!”
Walking into the exhibit hall at the Oregon Convention Center on Wednesday felt almost like stepping into a formal event for which I was considerably underdressed. Lavishness was the theme, with artsy seating areas and dining tables laid out with elegant settings and décor. There was even a small band playing light jazz music in the center of the room where people were crowded around blackjack tables. Whose high school prom did I crash?
My first impression of my surroundings was appropriate: I was visiting the Bravo! Live event, an annual showcase of the local hospitality and meetings industry. The hall was filled with extravagantly outfitted booths representing every sector of the business, from event design to transportation, along with representatives from big-name meeting venues like Timberline Lodge and the Portland Art Museum. Many of the exhibitors pulled out all the stops; the elaborate food displays were just the beginning. And with so much glitz in one room, it was hard to imagine this industry as yet another recession victim.
When I met James Joyce of Lake Oswego-based Gourmet Productions, he talked about the strategy shifts the company had made to keep itself alive, such as pushing to get new contacts and narrowing its focus to wineries and weddings. But while people were eager to try the beautifully arranged food samples at the company’s booth, Joyce did comment that attendance at the show was down compared to what he saw last year, and that attendees seemed to be more interested in venue shopping or networking than in catering services.
It isn’t often that I get to write movie star gossip, so now that I finally get my big chance, forgive me if I get a bit breathless. Like, OMG! What in the world is Michelle Williams doing in Burns, Oregon?
Starring in a film about desperation in a harsh environment — what else?
Williams, who graced the screen in Dawson’s Creek, Brokeback Mountain and Deception, is working with Wendy and Lucy director Kelly Reichardt and rising star Paul Dano in a James Mangold production titled Meek’s Cutoff. It’s a pioneer Western about an ill-fated journey into Harney County in 1845. Three families hire a guide named Stephen Meek to lead them on a detour from the Oregon Trail into unmarked territory, only to get horribly lost in a brutal landscape well known to anyone who has made the mind-numbing trip from Bend to Burns.