Tactics with the president and CEO of Greater Portland Inc.
Portland is falling behind other cities in terms of job growth in several key industries — and Monique Claiborne intends to right the ship.
Claiborne stepped into her role as president and CEO of Greater Portland Inc. — the region’s economic development agency — in February. Previously, Claiborne served as legislative operations chief financial officer for the City of Detroit, working to bring direct foreign investment into the city in the first years after the 2008 recession plunged the city into bankruptcy and a massive public relations crisis.
GPI is a bi-state, regional public-private partnership supported by 90 public-sector partners and private investors devoted to bringing economic investment to the region — and to writing economic strategy for the region. (The organization just released its five-year plan for economic development in the region in November.)
Claiborne spoke with Oregon Business about what put Portland on the map, what’s holding the city back — and what needs to change.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
You’ve said Portland is in a place similar to where Detroit was 10 years ago. What can Portland learn from Detroit?
I think you learn that you are in control of your narrative, and you don’t let someone else tell your story for you — to take control back, as opposed to just letting the national news and headlines run rampant. What’s interesting is, you know, 10 years ago, five years ago, people were running to Portland, right? They just had to be a part of what they were hearing about, the vibrancy. I think all those fundamentals are still there. But it’s being overshadowed. I think it’s important that we still promote that, because there’s still high in-migration to the region, but people don’t hear that. So we really need to take control of the narrative and all the attributes the region still has.
How do you think Portland can regain control of the narrative?
I think it’s telling the story of our successes. There’s an interest in the Portland region right now, so what do we do? What are we doing about that? In Detroit, all these pop stars and celebrities — Kid Rock, Celine Dion, Kanye West — were interested in Detroit. They’re calling the mayor’s office, and they’re coming and doing tours. What the city at the time did was start taking people on tours — we’re talking like your Airbnb experience tour, really showing you places. Dan Gilbert, who owns the Cleveland Cavaliers, owns the most properties in downtown Detroit, had his own security and command station — because we couldn’t rely on the police at the time. We didn’t have confidence in that. Part of the tour was you could go on his command station. I still remember the moment walking in there, and it’s floor-to-ceiling cameras. It’s all these ministories and things that were bubbling incubators — and telling that story and really pitching and touting what’s going on and what people want to hear about. I think there’s an opportunity for us to do that in Portland again. People are really interested in the region. So what are our unique attributes? And so then what happens is you have them go out and tell the story for you.
What are Portland’s strengths right now?
I think it’s the talent. We have incredible talent here. We have a commitment from employers; I think that’s incredibly beneficial to a city or region revitalizing itself. Even the commitment to Black Lives Matter, where Portland had 100 consecutive days of demonstrations — even that commitment, I think, is an attribute. Because while we are one of the whitest metropolitan areas in the country, we were actually ranked No. 4 for equity growth. There’s a desire, and there’s a willingness, and there’s a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and I think that goes a long way. What we do know is that companies care about that now. With companies that are considering the region when we’re in discussions with them, they want to know what those demographics are. They want to know what we’re doing.
What are your thoughts on the future of downtown Portland? That is one of the areas where we’ve been getting a lot of bad press, locally and nationally.
I think metropolitan areas always have ups and downs and turns. When you’re from another city, it’s just really not that bad. It’s unfortunate, this narrative that downtown is obsolete buildings, that there’s homeless people everywhere downtown. It comes and goes. I mean, have you ever gone to Chicago or New York? It’s part of the territory of growing into a large city.
Someone in Detroit contacted me about a federal tax credit to convert obsolete office buildings to housing. It’s a federal tax credit, and you have to lobby for that right. You have to lobby with your state senators. I introduced the group in Detroit that was doing that to the Portland Business Alliance. PBA has now been lobbying Sen. Wyden, who’s on the finance committee, to intervene and promote this federal tax credit to help our downtowns. They’re actually doing it in alignment with the Seattle Chamber of Commerce as well, with the senators in Washington.
You’ve also said that Portland is falling behind other cities in terms of job attraction. Can you talk about that a little bit?
My motto is, if there’s money to be made here, a company will still consider Portland. But they may postpone it for three to five years if there’s not someone actively recruiting them to the region. I think it’s important that we are aggressive. We’re touting the competitiveness of our region so we don’t fall behind from a job-growth standpoint. Also, we’re lagging in six particular sectors: clean technology, computers and electronics, software and media, metals and machinery, athletic and outdoor, health sciences and technology. It’s not total job growth for the region.
What do you think are some of Portland’s challenges, or the ways that we’re holding ourselves back?
I think that it is time for action. We have convened, we have collaborated and we have done our due-diligence research, our lessons learned, and I think it’s now time to act. We go after the areas that have the largest impact, and we’re serious about it and have goals that are smart, specific, measurable, accountable.
What specific areas are you thinking of?
At Greater Portland Inc., we do two things: regional strategy and recruitment of jobs. What I can tell you is there’s a new way to do job recruitment versus what we were doing in the past. When I first came in to GPI, I thought it was interesting. There were some things that GPI was not doing that we were doing in Detroit over 10 years ago. There’s just a modern way of doing business. In the past, GPI has relied heavily on relationships and working with consultants. But now the technology exists where you can use artificial intelligence. You can use machine learning. You can use cloud technologies to better pinpoint companies on the verge of expansion. I don’t have to read about it in the press; I can create a customized algorithm and use predictive analytics that says, “Hey, these are the type of companies on the verge of expansion.” Instead of hearing about it through the grapevine or waiting for a consultant to bring the project to us, we can go directly to them. And so that’s one way we are taking action: We’re being deliberate and we’re amping up our efforts.
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