Business leaders warn city about laurel sitting

May 17th, 2002
Heidi J. Stout Business Journal Staff Writer

The story of Microsoft might have been set in the Southwest, not the Northwest, had Bill Gates preferred to stay in Albuquerque.

Overwhelmingly, corporate leaders place a high priority on an areaís quality of life when they decide where to locate their companies. But while Portlandís local government, business and civic leaders agree this city offers an excellent quality of life, they agreed thatís not enough to ensure long-term economic vitality.

"To sit on our laurels and just say Portland is a wonderful place to live is irresponsible," said Terry Shanley, managing director of Cushman & Wakefield of Oregon Inc. and one of more than 200 prominent Portlanders who attended the kickoff of Mayor Vera Katzís Strategy for Economic Vitality.

The mayor has assembled an 18-member blue-ribbon committee to review, revise and reshape an economic development plan created by consultants hired by the city of Portland and the Portland Development Commis-sion, a process that is expected to take five months.

"The ordinary way would be to have private sector and public sector committees formulate a draft, but that would take years," explained John Russell, president of Russell Development Co. Inc. "There was such a sense of urgency, the mayor decided the consultants should put forth a draft and have the committees react to it and make any criticisms, suggestions or additions."

Russell and Sonal Shah, who president of EZ Recruit and Northwest Software Inc., are leading the blue-ribbon committee--a task Russell likened to herding cats. The blue-ribbon committee will be advised by leaders of industries including bioscience, creative services, distribution and logistics, sustainable industries, high tech, metals, transportation equipment, destination retail and tourism.

"The attendance was terrific and I think it tells you the importance the business community attaches to the mayorís efforts," Russell said. "Indifference is the enemy, and I didnít detect any of that, just enthusiasm."

"Iím encouraged to see us taking a proactive stance," said Shanley, who plans to serve on a committee. "To say that the business community hasnít been vocal is a mistake. Weíve been vocal--but weíve been critical. I think this is the first time weíve been critical while looking for solutions at the same time. I think the business community has been a little complacent in expecting someone else to come up with a repair or a fix."

Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the Milken Institute and author of The New Geography, was the keynote speaker at the kickoff event. He praised Portlandís quality of life, its prime location on the Pacific Rim, vibrant downtown and lush natural environment.

But Portland frequently plays second fiddle to Seattle, Kotkin said, leading some companies to locate their regional offices exclusively in Seattle. The Portland area also lacks a major research institution and the cityís regulatory climate is perceived as anti-growth and anti-business.

"At first, I was concerned [Kotkin] was going to talk about nothing but the sustainability of the green economy," Shanley said. "While I think thatís valid, we need to be honest about the things the city needs to do to become more economically viable. I want to be careful about throwing 100 percent of our efforts behind bioscience, similar to the way we supported technology."

But J. Clayton Hering, president of Norris Beggs & Simpson, was less optimistic about the potential of Katzís economic strategy.

"Itís positive that weíre addressing job creation and how we can become more competitive, both in terms of the perception of Portland as a place to do business, and the reality of Portland as a place to do business," Hering said. "But Iím frustrated and somewhat impatient with the constant studies. Our politicians ought to know what needs to be done and do it. Why do they have to put up a smokescreen and blue-ribbon committees? Just get to work."

Hering doesnít plan to serve on an industry committee; he believes the issues are well-defined and ready for action.

Portland is not a business-friendly place, Hering said, due to burdensome and costly permitting and planning processes, business taxation, rules that preserve historic buildings and regulations that restrict private property ownersí rights to develop their land.

News reprinted from The Business Journal