Update, March 21: The online survey is now closed. Nearly 2,000 people responded. Watch Metro News in the coming weeks for a summary of the feedback we heard.
Six years ago, Metro hand-picked a group of regional leaders to answer one question: How can greater Portland prepare for the challenges of tomorrow?
The time seemed right. The economy had tanked, infrastructure costs were soaring, Congress stopped paying for local pipes and roads, and the region needed a reset.
That group, the Community Investment Initiative's Leadership Council, didn't have the sweeping impact that Metro's leaders hoped it would. But it did bring up one point that gained significant traction – the region is changing, and its economy and taxpayers could benefit if it adapted now.
A draft plan to address regional equity issues is set for release today, after three years of discussion and development. A survey will allow the region's residents to provide feedback before the Metro Council considers the plan this summer.
The issue, says Metro chief operating officer Martha Bennett, is the evolving face of the region.
Metro's Equity Strategy Advisory Committee spent nearly three years studying the problem, and solutions. In the course of their work, one thing became clear: If the region makes an explicit effort to narrow the gap between whites and nonwhites, and address equity specifically from a perspective of race, it will be better off."We're living in a region that will be very different in terms of its racial, ethnic, income and age makeup 25 years from now than it is today," she said. "The future does not look like the past, and we know it."
"The case for equity is about economic and social prosperity," she said. Educational attainment, health outcomes, employment prospects and income prospects are all worse among communities of color in greater Portland.
"You're building a permanent underclass," she said. "If you decide not to address that, that's going to be a constant drag on your economy."
Carl Talton is one of the members of the Community Investment Initiative and also chairs Metro's equity committee. He said employers in the region have had to recruit transplants to fill jobs because they couldn't find applicants locally.
"If we want to stay competitive, attract talent, attract businesses, we're going to have to play a bigger role in producing these folks at home," Talton said.
Not only does racial inequity hurt companies looking for employees and customers, Bennett said, it also puts increased demands on local governments.
"You have higher demands on the social service aspects of your infrastructure. You have higher public health costs, higher education costs, higher law enforcement costs," Bennett said. "You're building that into your region if you don't address equity."
How does that work at a regional planning agency that also manages a solid waste system, parks, cemeteries, two convention centers, performing arts venues and a zoo?
Bennett said the priorities are to learn more about best practices, apply equity plans to its service-delivery areas, improve community engagement and use equity as a measure of decision-making in spending money.
That means getting a better understanding of gentrification and displacement, Bennett said, and planning accordingly. Metro is looking at how its First Opportunity Target Areas and other contracting opportunities can improve equity. It's also about ensuring Metro's parks and destinations are welcoming to people of other cultures.
"It might be that people like me want to go out and experience a trail by myself in complete solitude," Bennett said. "And maybe people from other backgrounds want to go out and have picnics."
The racially-centered approach to equity is bound to draw some questions from people who say "colorblind" policies would work better. But committee members, Talton said, quickly coalesced around a racially-centered approach to equity. Part of that, researchers say, is because "colorblind" policies haven't worked in improving the lives of people of color – but policies that specifically focus on improving the lives of people of color tend to lift all boats.
"Once you mention race and inject that, it tends to skew the way people evaluate both their position in what’s going on, and the position in whatever the organization is,” Talton said. “People don’t see Metro as a civil rights organization. They see them as an agency that is supposed to be playing an important role in coordinating the growth and development in the Portland metro area. Some people have difficulty linking those things together.”
The coming public comment period will allow committee members to gauge whether the public feels the plan could be successful.
“I think we have an impact,” Bennett said. “I know the impact is not as direct as some of our city and county partners. But we ignore the impact we have at our own peril.”