Jobs Watch: Why sacrifice Geithner?

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.

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Jobs Watch: The return of the mega project

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.

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Jobs Watch: What's impeding progress?

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

The Rose Quarter lies roughly halfway between my home and my office, and every time I roll past I wonder how such a prime piece of urban property can manage to be so very lame, in so many ways. Where are the quirky cafes, the funky breweries, the dance halls and the music clubs, the bike shops and the pool halls? Nothing but chain restaurants and endless parking lots: visionary urban planning circa 1975. This is not the Portland I know and love. It makes sense for the city and the Blazers to redevelop the quarter into something that reflects the soul of the city, because there’s really nowhere to go but up. The neighborhood just hasn’t been the same since it got bulldozed.

J.E. Isaac, the Blazers’ senior VP of Business Affairs, has a name for the neighborhood to come: JumpTown, a “green, vibrant and economically viable Rose Quarter.”

Can’t argue with that. But how to get there?

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Jobs Watch: The power of negative thinking

The latest numbers show that Oregon has lost 124,300 jobs since I took this job in December of 2007. Clearly my writing is not good for the state’s economy. So forgive me if I dispense with the cheerleading and point out a few observations that give me reason for concern.

It starts with the banks. Lake Oswego-headquartered West Coast Bank is the latest to receive an ominously worded “cease and desist” order from the FDIC. That makes three important regional banks struggling for survival, if you add Columbia River Bank of The Dalles and Bank of the Cascades in Bend. Plus the complex situation of ShoreBank Pacific, which is wholly owned by a holding company operating under a cease and desist order of its own. These banks have to improve their capital positions or else, and that means they will be more reluctant to loan than ever.

Then there’s retail. Is it me or is the premature Christmas glitter looking even more desperate than usual this season? I realize that retail drives the economy, 70% of which is based on consumer spending. But is it really the duty of every American to purchase all the world’s plastic junk? Consumers lack confidence for a reason. With so many companies cutting costs, salaries and jobs, how much longer can consumers be expected to over-spend?

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Jobs Watch: Nau is not the time to quit

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.

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