Must Reads

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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Jobs Watch: Desert celebrity watch

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.

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Jobs Watch: Back to work

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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Jobs Watch: A surprise win for the harbor

There’s good news and then there’s REALLY good news. Daimler’s decision to keep making trucks in Portland isn’t just a reprieve for the hundreds of people who work for Daimler and the companies that feed into that truck-building machine. It is a vote of confidence for the industrial harbor that Portland was built on.

The harbor has been losing jobs steadily over the past decade due to cheaper labor costs overseas and the environmental uncertainties that go with a Superfund listing. But the harbor remains vital to the regional economy, a place where people without college educations can get good jobs to support their families building barges, pumps, rail cars and trucks. Some of these jobs have moved to Mexico, but a lot remain here. Manufacturing powerhouses such as Schnitzer Steel, Esco, Gunderson and Vigor Industrial give Portland “a manufacturing base in this city that most mayors would give their left arms for,” in the words of Mayor Sam Adams.

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Jobs Watch: Hemp for the masses

Anyone who believes that the hemp industry is best left to the half-baked stoners of the world should spend a few hours talking textiles with Ken Barker. Five minutes into the conversation it becomes clear that this guy is onto something big, and he knows exactly what he is doing.

Barker recently served as head of apparel at Adidas North America in Portland. Before that he held executive positions with Adidas and Levi Strauss in Canada. He knows how hard it is for apparel companies to meet the rising demand for clothing from earth-friendly sources. When he was with Adidas he entertained proposals to make fabric from soy, bamboo, even seaweed. None of them made as much sense as hemp, the plant that once served as the backbone of U.S. industry before it was banned in the 1930s.

Barker and another former Adidas executive, David Howitt (a brain behind the success of Oregon Chai), run an investment firm in Northwest Portland called the Meriwether Group. They have two hemp companies in their portfolio. Living Harvest, which makes hemp milk, is one of the fastest growing companies in Oregon. Naturally Advanced Technologies, the company Barker has run since 2006, recently raised more than $900,000 and plans to get its product to market within six months.

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Jobs Watch: The recession is over. Sort of.

Ben Bernanke said it, so it must be true: The recession is over. Why am I not feeling relieved? For starters, Oregon’s new jobless numbers are out, and they are worse than ever. Unemployment has more than doubled over the past year.

Construction jobs are down 16.3% year over year. Manufacturing jobs are down 15.2%. Professional and business services are down 8.7%. Even government jobs have dropped. There may be signs of rebirth hidden somewhere in these figures, but I’m not seeing them.

Meanwhile, projects that had me thinking optimistic thoughts about Oregon’s future are fizzling out. Amazon is backing away from its plan to build a server farm in Boardman. Vestas appears to be waffling on its earlier promise to building a new headquarters building in Portland. Once mighty Tektronix is being forced by its parent company to move jobs from Beaverton to Shanghai.
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Jobs Watch: Something's burning in Burns

Something was burning in Burns, and it smelled awful. Turns out the town dump was on fire: Black smoke was spewing forth from a privately operated landfill loaded with treated wood, plastics and fiberglass from the RV manufacturing plant.

This was the last thing I wanted to breathe in on a sweet morning last Thurdsay in Harney County, where fewer than 8,000 people populate 10,000 square miles of high desert and pine forest. You expect dust storms, sagebrush, weather-beaten pickup trucks, barbed wire, dried up lakes, bullet holes in the road signs. But burning fiberglass?

The locals weren’t too happy about it, either. The smell served as an acrid reminder of the latest industry to leave town. Bankrupt Monaco Coach, which employed 6,500 people as recently as 2006, was in the last stages of shutting down its local operation, with its final day of operations set for Friday. The closure of the Monaco plant leaves Harney County with basically no manufacturing jobs. That’s a harsh reality to accept in a town that once had one of the busiest lumber mills in the world.

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