Nearly 30 years ago, the Oregon Convention Center opened with the promise of increased access to jobs for members of the historically black North Portland community.
Decades later, part of that promise is finally being fulfilled.
A $27 million project to renovate the Oregon Convention Center and its northeast entrance was awarded this summer to Colas Construction, a firm owned by an African-American family and rooted in Portland’s historic black community that once was centered where the convention center now stands.
The project will update the convention center's concourses, ballrooms and entries, as well as the plaza between the under-construction Hyatt Regency Porltand and the convention center's northeast entrance, next to the MAX station. Updates being considered include surface finishes, lighting, furniture, entries and floors.
Ray Leary, a longtime North Portland resident and a member of the Metro Exposition and Recreation Commission, which oversees the convention center, said the Holladay neighborhood of the Albina community was one of the first places people of color settled after the Vanport flood.
“It was a very southern type of community – people looking out for one another, people working on behalf of one another, people caring about opportunities and creating opportunities,” Leary said of Albina. “So it’s a very affectionate remembrance, and as time progressed, displacement began. And that displacement included the site we’re currently seated here at the convention center. Hardworking people, many employed by the shipyards and foundries and railroads.”
Andrew Colas, president and COO of the contracting firm founded by his father, Hermann Colas, said more than 800 homes were removed for construction of the Memorial Coliseum and Emanuel Hospital. More were removed for construction of Interstate 5.
“If you just look at that today, let’s see the average value of each of those homes is $300,000, and if you’re talking about around 800 homes, that’s $240 millon that could be in the African-American community that isn’t,” Colas said. “It’s really hard to regain those kinds of opportunities now.”
When the convention center was first envisioned, leaders were aware of the optics of tearing down part of the historic Albina community to build a visitors attraction. They promised increased access to jobs and opportunity for members of the community they were displacing.
“Many promissories were made by formerly what we would call the Portland Development Commission, the City of Portland and others, and some of those, we’re just beginning to make good on those promissories, we’re just beginning to own the fact that gentrification was not a market dynamic, that there were policy driven implications behind it, and not always in the best interests of the local citizenry,” Leary said.
But a lot of that opportunity was historically focused on lower-wage service jobs at the center itself. Black-owned firms never successfully garnered some of the larger contracts issued by center management.
“It’s not like we were even able to benefit from the construction projects and the development that would happen,” said Jeff Moreland, president of Raimore Construction. “We were also excluded from that. So it was gentrification in a complete way of not just displacement, but actually where we were not able to economically benefit from any of the wealth that was created from the development and changes that happened in the neighborhood we historically call home.”
That changed this year, when Colas won the bid to renovate the original north end of the convention center, the Oregon Ballroom and the plaza and main entry so that the center is better connected with the new Hyatt Regency at the Oregon Convention Center.
Colas said the work to get the contract has been years in the making.
“A high profile project like this… what that does for companies like us is it really starts to eliminate barriers,” he said. “Moving into the future, when we’re starting to go for other projects, everybody knows the Oregon Convention Center. Both of our companies now are going to be able to say we did the full renovation of the Oregon Convention Center.”
Part of the importance of the contract award, Colas said, is the ability to ensure opportunities for other emerging contractors, as well as people of color interested in the skilled trades.
“Important to us was the opportunity afforded to young journeymen, and the development of future craftsmen, and that weighed heavily in our thought, because we saw the educational component in your efforts, and you were creating as well the pipeline to continue to diversify our market,” Leary said to Moreland in a panel interview last month.
The project is expected to be completed by the middle of 2019.