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The OB Poll: Darwin had a point

Diversify or die. That’s what the majority of our respondents agreed would lift Oregon’s economy in this week’s poll. Not bad advice for organisms or economies.

Diversifying the business base has been the mantra of most economic development plans in Oregon in the past few decades. It was a state built on natural resources, and since the fisheries and timber operations started to collapse, small towns throughout Oregon have tried to find a way to reinvent themselves. It’s still a work in progress. Oregon Business will examine some of those former timber towns in its November issue.

Despite the historic rollercoaster of the natural resources industry, the second most popular vote was to get back to the basic of agriculture and timber. Timber is unlikely to ever be king again because of federal forests policies, but ag has the ability to always be the once and future king, albeit with a volatile time on the throne. In our September issue last year, we detailed how spiking prices and an insatiable worldwide demand for commodities such as wheat brought record-breaking prices to Oregon’s ag industry. But just a few months later, the demand plummeted, prices dropped and the rollercoaster hit the bottom again.

Editor's Notes: The 100 Best Nonprofits

Last night, in the presence of a sell-out crowd of 560 at the Portland Art Museum, we ended a two-year journey and began another one when Oregon Business unveiled its first 100 Best Nonprofits to Work For in Oregon.

I was so moved by the turnout that I impulsively asked everyone to stand at the beginning, and asked everyone to turn and hug their tablemate since I couldn’t give that many people a giant hug. Maybe because this is Oregon, or maybe because this was a heart-driven group, they actually did it. It was a room full of laughing, hugging people. It took me about half the program to recover from the emotion, flubbing a few remarks along the way.

There couldn’t have been a better debut. Former Gov. Barbara Roberts delivered a spirited keynote address that drew on her personal story of how, as a single mother with an autistic son, she advocated for his rights and in the process launched not only groundbreaking legislation for the disabled but her political career. She challenged the audience to not get dragged down by the current tough economy by telling the story of her ancestors on the Oregon Trail. They had nothing when they arrived in this state, and built it from scratch. So if you need a problem fixed and can’t find the help? Look in the mirror and you’ll find the leader you need.

Jobs Watch: A surprise win for the harbor

There’s good news and then there’s REALLY good news. Daimler’s decision to keep making trucks in Portland isn’t just a reprieve for the hundreds of people who work for Daimler and the companies that feed into that truck-building machine. It is a vote of confidence for the industrial harbor that Portland was built on.

The harbor has been losing jobs steadily over the past decade due to cheaper labor costs overseas and the environmental uncertainties that go with a Superfund listing. But the harbor remains vital to the regional economy, a place where people without college educations can get good jobs to support their families building barges, pumps, rail cars and trucks. Some of these jobs have moved to Mexico, but a lot remain here. Manufacturing powerhouses such as Schnitzer Steel, Esco, Gunderson and Vigor Industrial give Portland “a manufacturing base in this city that most mayors would give their left arms for,” in the words of Mayor Sam Adams.

On The Scene: Oregon gets supercharged

Portland’s Pioneer Square was buzzing with excitement last week over the three-wheeled contraption being backed out a U-Haul. Eugene-based Arcimoto was premiering its new Pulse electric vehicle, and legislators and promoters were on hand to praise the machine’s benefits to both Oregon and the green industry. Mayor Sam Adams even revealed that the machine was helping him win an ongoing electric-car competition between himself and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom.

But to some, it wasn’t just the premiere of an electric car. I overheard one attendee telling another, “This is not a car. It’s a revolution.”

The debut of the Pulse had curious citizens and reporters swarming Portland’s living room, snapping photos of the strange-looking vehicle that looked like it was plucked straight out of sci-fi fantasy. Businesspeople were talking excitedly about the implications of the new car, and Adams even got to sit in it. It was a warm reception for Arcimoto’s brainchild, which the startup had been working on since it was founded in 2007.

On The Scene: Small biz still breathing

Oregon is home to over 338,000 small businesses, a mighty sector that makes up a substantial majority of the state’s employers – 97.8% according to the latest data from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy. But it’s no secret that small businesses have taken a severe economic beating. Will people still be willing to put everything on the line to get that coffee shop or craft store up and running? And how are existing businesses getting by?

Some say the economy is improving, so I stopped by the Oregon Small Business Fair this past weekend to see if things were brightening up on the small-business side as well. Plenty of folks were eager to spend their rainy Saturday inside the Oregon Convention Center’s spacious halls, taking advantage of the free all-day event sponsored by local government and business organizations. Attendees had a wealth of resources available to them, from free seminars and consultations to information booths from groups like Portland General Electric, Women Entrepreneurs of Oregon and the City of Portland Revenue Bureau.

Also being represented at the fair was the Portland chapter of SCORE Counselors to America’s Small Business, a nonprofit operating out of the SBA and staffed by volunteers with small-business experience. Counselors Janet Livesay and Terry Jones were on hand to offer the organization’s services to small-business owners at the fair or people thinking about starting a business. They both agreed that the recession hasn’t necessarily put a damper on the volume of businesses getting launched. “Because people are losing their jobs, some of them are turning to their entrepreneurial side and considering business,” Jones said.

Jobs Watch: Hemp for the masses

Anyone who believes that the hemp industry is best left to the half-baked stoners of the world should spend a few hours talking textiles with Ken Barker. Five minutes into the conversation it becomes clear that this guy is onto something big, and he knows exactly what he is doing.

Barker recently served as head of apparel at Adidas North America in Portland. Before that he held executive positions with Adidas and Levi Strauss in Canada. He knows how hard it is for apparel companies to meet the rising demand for clothing from earth-friendly sources. When he was with Adidas he entertained proposals to make fabric from soy, bamboo, even seaweed. None of them made as much sense as hemp, the plant that once served as the backbone of U.S. industry before it was banned in the 1930s.

Barker and another former Adidas executive, David Howitt (a brain behind the success of Oregon Chai), run an investment firm in Northwest Portland called the Meriwether Group. They have two hemp companies in their portfolio. Living Harvest, which makes hemp milk, is one of the fastest growing companies in Oregon. Naturally Advanced Technologies, the company Barker has run since 2006, recently raised more than $900,000 and plans to get its product to market within six months.

Your Business: Getting started in e-commerce

Steve: I read your previous column where you suggest that if business is slow in my area (and it is) we should consider getting into e-commerce. I like that idea, but I’m not sure how to start, and I’m not sure what to sell. Thoughts? — Deanna

Deanna: You bet. In fact, I recently did a webinar at AT&T called E-Commerce Essentials that explains the process of creating an e-store and selling online.

Basically, it is a seven-step process.

Editor's Notes: Progress in The Dalles

I’ve reported on the city of The Dalles for several years and marvel at the patience and perseverance those folks have for the arduous process of remaking their downtown, a hard-by-the-rails hodge-podge of discount stores and small boutiques; part beautifully restored historic buildings and part eyesores.

The town was cut off from the Columbia River when I-84 was built decades ago, and city officials have ambitious plans to turn the town back around to face the river that include a second highway underpass; completion of a riverfront trail; restoration of historic buildings; and upgrading the look of First, Third and Fourth streets.

More than two years ago I wrote about how the much-heralded arrival of a Google server farm belied the decades of hard work and planning that kept the town moving forward despite its boom-bust cycle that started with the aluminum downturn in the ’80s. The town also struggles with historically high unemployment, high poverty rates and low wages. And this recession has been as brutal to them as anyone.

The OB Poll: Kitzhaber "bad for biz"

Our poll this week asking if John Kitzhaber would be good or bad for business showed that he’s got some work to do to woo the business vote. Kitzhaber, 62, was governor of Oregon for two consecutive terms from 1995-2003. He threw his hat back into the ring a few weeks ago.

Before becoming a politician, he was a practicing emergency room doctor, and in recent years has been working for health reform, founding the Archimedes Movement.

There had been a lot of speculation about whether he would run. After he announced, he said in one interview that he wanted to continue the state’s efforts to attract green businesses if elected. But more specifics about how he would tackle the state’s economic woes and help hard-hit businesses have yet to be seen.