Portland's economy is something like Portland's weather: always up for debate, never as reliable as we'd like.
There is plenty of evidence that the Portland region's economy is getting sunnier: we're creating jobs, building value, attracting companies and talented employees to work at them.
But longtime Portlanders know that sunshine can be fleeting. So are these bright economic rays something we can count on? Can we put those umbrellas and galoshes away for a bit? We asked four people with unique takes on the economy to give us their weather report:
What is the Portland region's greatest economic strength?
Linda Weston, Oregon Entrepreneurs Network: We are a community of people that are open to innovation and new ideas. Innovation is where job creation happens.
Janet LaBar, Greater Portland Inc.: It sounds cliché—but quality of life is something that greater Portland can hang its hat on. And I say that because I think it’s the anchor to what draws our young educated professionals to the region. … . We have one of the highest productivity rates in the country. I think that is rooted in the fact that people want to be here.
Christan Kaylor, Oregon Employment Department: We out-perform in terms of job growth. We are the seventh fastest economy for job growth in the last 12 months in the nation. … The second strength is the diversity of job growth we are experiencing. Every major industry is growing.
Dwayne Johnson, ScaleUp: The region’s greatest economic strength is its people. We’ve got a number of people coming in from all over the country and world that are educated and engaged and easy to be plugged into our local ecosystem.
What is the region's greatest economic challenge?
Kaylor: Portland’s greatest economic challenge is wage polarization. That is a fancy term for we are creating a lot of high wage jobs in high-skill, high-education service sectors and we are creating a lot of jobs unfortunately in the lower-wage low-skill sectors. We are not doing a good job at creating jobs in middle-income, middle-skill industries. … So while we are growing very well, that is a big problem for us.
Johnson: I’d say that we don’t take advantage of the resources we have. No. 1. We may have a lot of great people doing great things, but we also tend to have little groups of people that work with each other, but don’t really work well with other groups. The bottom line is we are a land of 1,000 nonprofits. It would be great if we aggregated some of those efforts a bit better.
LaBar: If I had to pick one, I think the region could do better in having more of a competitiveness mindset. To being more open to attracting businesses here and nurturing the businesses that we have.
Weston: I think we have some real economic challenges in terms of what our public agencies are able to provide to support economic development. … Funds that they might have reasonable considered allocating to spur economic development are really going to be scarce going forward.
How can public investments help our economy?
Weston: It’s investing in programs that provide support to entrepreneurs, perhaps investing in loan programs or actually doing things like investing in young companies directly through things like angel funds and angel conferences so they are helping to spur economic development and job growth.
Kaylor: I see one investment as being the most critical to the region. And that’s education. … Portland is famous for its ability to attract college graduates to the region from other places in the US and even the world. That’s good, but unfortunately we do a poor job of educating people that actually live in the community.
LaBar: Infrastructure with the mindset of people, business and innovation is incredibly important. I think that is the role public investments can have. I am talking about physical infrastructure like transportation, that share of housing that can be affordable and available. I don’t necessarily think that it is up to the public sector entirely to shoulder that investment. I do think that the private sector has a role in it, but the public sector has a role in enabling (it).
Johnson: I think public dollars can also be used more like (research & development) dollars. A lot of people think private industry did a lot of work in the Silicon Valley. And they did, however, a lot of that was R&D dollars that were supported by the federal government coming in and developing things for the defense industry and education as well.
Johnson: At Innovate Oregon, we’ve got two communities that are building their local economies around innovation: The city of Dayton and the city of Independence. They have turned their whole focus around innovation right down to the school level, where kids are learning to innovate and are connected to the economic development process in the city to drive the future of their local economy. What’s different about is that it’s a little bit of a bottom-up approach. The student, community, teachers are all involved in the process as well as the community business and government. It is truly a community effort.
You see places like Atlanta, Austin and even Denver. They have innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development strategies. The thing that works best for them is when it’s a shared vision.
LaBar: When I think about other markets talking about inclusion, equity and advancement, I think there are some other regions that are ahead of us. It is going just beyond the recruitment, retention and expansion of jobs. It’s a broader shared prosperity effort and approach that these other markets like Syracuse and Minneapolis are doing. I applaud their efforts.
Kaylor: If you are asking me if there is a place in the US that is doing a great job…the more I think about it, I think that the answer is no.
It’s ironic; because again you see the places creating the most wealth growing the fastest over the last few years coming out of the recession in 2009, and they are struggling the most with these growth pains (lik traffic and high housing costs). … If you look and say what are the communities that aren’t struggling with high housing costs, traffic congestion, don’t have an issue with a shrinking middle class, they tend to be places that are quite poor.
I would love to see at some point a community in the US try to accomplish both of those goals. Create those jobs, create that wealth, enjoy that business growth and not price their own citizens out of the community. Unfortunately I cannot think of an example of that in America today.