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.
The economy must be picking up again, because the focus in Portland has shifted from hanging on for dear life to Utopian exercises in rebuilding. There are now three redevelopment projects in the works midway between my home and my office, and each has potential. Taken as a whole, they could provide a nice boost to a job market that needs all the help it can get. Or they could represent the latest in a series of misguided attempts to use public money to create private-sector jobs.
In addition to the Blazers and Nike and their compelling ideas for turning the Rose Quarter into JumpTown, the Portland Development Commission is also dusting off two long-delayed proposals to upgrade under-used chunks of land near the Willamette River.
The first project involves the old Centennial Mills waterfront property, between the Fremont and Broadway Bridges downriver from Union Station. I’ve read the project proposal from developer LAB Holding LLC of Costa Mesa, Calif., and I have to say that other than the excessively cute quotes praising food, I am impressed. The idea is to connect the Pearl District with the river through a mix of food market stalls, gardens, retail shops, kayak rentals, restaurants, galleries, a culinary school and offices. A pedestrian bridge would span SW Naito Parkway. An amphitheater would face the river. There are plans for an orchard, a grain garden, a greenhouse, even a tree-house and an outdoor fireplace. No one can accuse this team of lacking ideas.
The annual business summit that brings together hundreds of the state’s business, political and civic leadership has been cancelled this year after seven consecutive summits. “We have decided to take a year off,” said the Oregon Business Plan's steering committee in an announcement Nov. 13.
“In these difficult and uncertain economic times, we want to 1) continue to promote implementation of the work already proposed in the Business Plan and 2) take a fresh look at the plan and its initiatives to bring to the Leadership Summit in December 2010," the committee said.
That summit would come after the general election, where the state will elect a new governor. The state’s business community has made no secret about how unhappy it is over Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s signing into law this past Legislative session tax increases on businesses and the incomes of wealthy Oregonians. Businesses led the drive to bring the measures to a vote in a Jan. 26, 2010, special election.
If you’re among those who love the Trail Blazer’s idea to redevelop the area around Memorial Coliseum into a mixed-use sports and entertainment district, this news won’t make you happy. Almost half the respondents to this week’s poll question about the JumpTown redevelopment idea say it would be a waste of taxpayer’s money.
“Imagine JumpTown” is a campaign for what should happen to the neighborhood around the coliseum. This past week, the city of Portland started accepting concept applications and the Trail Blazers are pushing their idea with a new website called Imagine: JumpTown. Portland Mayor Sam Adams is asking for public input on projects for the area.
One resident writing in the Oregonian calls the JumpTown idea a sad legacy for urban renewal: “Forty-five years on, the Rose Quarter dead zone feels like urban renewal chickens coming home to roost. If public money is ‘essential’ to JumpTown's success, perhaps the city should think about spending instead where people actually live — maybe just to the north in the remnants of the original JumpTown.”
To most people, cheerleading and marketing don't often go hand-in-hand, other than using pep rallies and bake sales to promote the high school team. Which could be why it was so interesting to hear Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders director Kelli Finglass talk about how she built the cheer team – first conceived simply as an outreach arm for the Cowboys – into a world-famous business brand that sells everything from throw blankets to yoga DVDs.
Finglass spoke at a luncheon this week for the local American Marketing Association chapter, held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Northeast Portland. Finglass herself was a Cowboys cheerleader from 1984 to 1989; she was eventually brought on as assistant director and later worked in sales and promotions for the Cowboys franchise before being hired as DCC director by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. But the cheerleaders weren’t always an international presence; in fact, before Finglass took the job, the team was operating at a deficit, and moving the team out of the red was one of Finglass’ first challenges as director. But she succeeded in making them profitable, eventually introducing branded items like calendars to promote the team's image and establishing dance camps and competitions — all to expand revenue streams for a group that wasn't originally intended to be a money-maker.
But with the new branding opportunities came the temptation to over-sponsor and slap the cheerleaders' logo— also redesigned under Finglass — on everything. "I was very cautious, which made it a little harder for me as a brand-new marketer to figure out ways that we could create revenue without compromising the mission of the cheerleaders," Finglass said. And when she tried reaching out to Mattel to make a Barbie doll modeled after the cheerleaders, she was denied for years because the company still didn't think the team had a national appeal. It wasn't until Finglass helped the team get its own Country Music Television reality show that a Barbie designer finally took notice two years ago; the resulting DCC doll sold out nationwide in three days. In addition to watching the cheerleaders establish themselves as go-to USO entertainers, Finglass considers the Barbie deal her biggest DCC brand achievement, especially when she looks back at the thick file of denial letters from Mattel.
Andrew Revkin, the great environmental writer for The New York Times, was in town last night, and once I got over his nearly unforgivable mistake of referring to Oregon as “Ore-a-Gone,” I had to admit he had some compelling things to say. One line that stuck with me in particular was, “We don’t have time on Planet Earth for impeded potential.”
My first internal response was, what do you mean we don’t have time for impeded potential? That’s like saying there’s no time for procrastination. Anybody who writes for a living can tell you that there is always time for procrastination.
Take the Rose Quarter: 35 acres in the heart of the city, with two major entertainment venues next to a busy transit station. The place should be hopping 365 days a year, right? It should be as much of a part of the Portland fabric as are the Blazers.
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- Jobs Watch: Rose-colored visions
- On The Scene: Retail awaits good tidings
- Editor's Notes: Salem's slow and steady race
- On The Scene: Job Seeking 101
- Jobs Watch: The power of negative thinking