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PDX: More St. Louis, not so much Austin

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Linda Baker
Wednesday, December 07, 2011

BY LINDA BAKER

Portland’s urban peers aren’t quite who we thought they were. That’s one of the takeaways from a new metro area economic study released yesterday by the Value of Jobs Coalition. With its vibrant restaurant scene, strong planning ethos, and well-educated population, Portland likes to compare itself favorably to Seattle, Minneapolis and Denver, creative-class havens noted for their livability. But when measured by economic factors such as personal income, the cities we most resemble turn out to be decidedly less glamorous: the Rust Belt towns of Cincinnati and St. Louis.

Forty years ago, Portland’s personal income was comparable to the aforementioned three cities. But since then, Portland has charted a separate, and downward, path. As the graphs below illustrate (excerpted from the report), personal income for Seattle, Denver and Minneapolis currently exceeds expectations for metro regions of their size. By contrast, Portland metro’s personal income is nearly 2 percentage points below what would be expected given its size. All told, Portland lags 16% to 21% behind Seattle and Denver in terms of average income.

Enter Cincinnati and St. Louis, cities that are losing population but apparently have something in common with Portland besides their rivertown status. According to the Value of Jobs study, all three metropolitan areas have similar per capita personal income, and that amount falls below what one would predict for cities of their size.

The three metro areas share another dubious achievement: an unemployment rate hovering between 8.6 % and 9.0 %. Minneapolis and Seattle have unemployment rates of  6.4% and 8.3% respectively. In an earlier report from 2010, it was noted that the Portland-metro area does not "notably out-perform our peers on 'compensating' characteristics such as cost of living or quality of life." The follow-up 2011 report does not address this issue.

By likening ourselves to creative-class cities that have weathered the recession relatively well, Portland denizens seem to be engaging in a bit of magical, or at least aspirational, thinking.  A reputation for livability does not put us in the same class as a Seattle or for that matter, an Austin — metro areas with flagship research universities, diversified economies and in some cases, major government employers to help keep their economies afloat.

Next week’s Oregon Leadership Summit will focus on a variety of job and wage growth strategies to help bring us in line with our aspirational peers. Recognizing who our real urban contemporaries are will be an important first step.

Linda Baker is the managing editor of Oregon Business.

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