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.
The Allison officially opened Sept. 25 and on that weekend hosted its first wedding. General manager Pierre Zreik took me on that spring tour and told me then that they absolutely had to make their deadline because they had a wedding booked for opening weekend and you never make a bride mad. Just a few days ago, the happy bride proudly sent Zreik wedding pictures.
The dream completed is Joan Austin’s. Austin founded dental equipment maker A-Dec with her husband Ken in 1964. Over the decades, she acquired 450 nearby acres, all within the urban growth boundary. The inn sits on 35 of those acres about two miles of Highway 99W and construction began in November 2007. When I interviewed Austin in April, she would not say (and has not said) what the Allison cost. It only mattered to her that she was creating a gift to the community she had lived in for 60 years, one where she built a business and a home and raised a family. Her dream was to leave behind a place that would provide jobs, a community gathering spot, and a point of pride.
In a state like Oregon, going green is not a new cause by any means. The Beaver State is a hub of alternative-vehicle interest, Portland’s public transportation and bike-friendliness are world-famous, and sustainable local products are the norm. So what else could the annual GoGreen Conference have to offer to attendees?
I checked out GoGreen 09 this week to find out. The event was at the Gerding Theater in Portland’s Pearl District — a small venue for the tremendous turnout the conference received. Crowds of businesspeople packed the lobby and milled around outside, representing companies such as Pacific Power, NW Natural and Providence Health & Services. And following its debut last month, Arcimoto’s brand-new Pulse EV was parked proudly in front of the theater (and Portland Mayor Sam Adams even stopped by to check it out again).
Not everyone was there representing business. I chatted with a recent MBA graduate from Dominican University of California who was attending the conference simply to get a sense of the way Portland approached sustainability issues. But with panel session topics ranging from green funding options to plan writing, the conference was clearly aimed at getting businesses of all stages started in the sustainability game.
When I interviewed Sam Adams back in 2005, it was like an aerobic workout. He was midway through a campaign stunt to work at 100 businesses in 100 days, and ideas and energy were spilling out of him.
This summer, interviewing the mayor was an entirely different experience. The ideas were still there but the energy was not. Transcribing the tape later, I wondered if my recorder was running low on batteries, he was speaking so slowly and with so little inflection and passion. He sounded like a burnt-out bureaucrat.
This is not surprising. We all know about the sordid sex scandal that surfaced at the worst possible moment, just as Adams was taking office and the economy was crashing. That mess nearly cost him his job, and it hasn’t done the city any good either.
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