Why talent leaves Portland. one story

By Dave Lister
Small Business Advisory Council Member
Oregonian guest columnist

Marty Vegas is throwing in the towel. After four years of enjoying Portland’s hip downtown scene, the microbrews and the coffee shops, Vegas, like so many others, has come to realize that in order for him and his young wife, Jill, to own a home and start a family, they have to look for economic opportunity elsewhere. At first blush Vegas would appear to perfectly fit the much-vaunted “young creative” profile upon which our city mothers and fathers have staked our future economy. Armed with two bachelor’s degrees and experience as a freelance photographer and journalist, Vegas first came to visit Portland in 2005.

“I was 26 when I came to check it out,” Vegas told me. “Portland had a good reputation. There were lots of young people moving here, and everybody was talking about the creative class. The coffee was good, and the place seemed affordable. But the city did seem smug and a little full of itself. I came here without a job, and in order to get one I had to spend six months as an unpaid intern. I managed to scrape by during those six months by doing some freelancing on the side.” Even when Vegas started drawing a paycheck he discovered his wages were substandard compared to other cities, and he began to question his decision.“Looking back I guess I realize how stupid I was not to have done more research. But I think I’m fairly typical of people in their mid-20s. I was sold on the city and didn’t ask the tough questions. But now I think people who move here for the lifestyle have to be prepared to forgo almost all career opportunity. It’s a fun place to spend a few years, but when it’s time to get serious, it’s time to get out of here and find a job.”

I asked Vegas whether he thought the economic downturn was to blame.

“I was here two years before the economy tanked,” he replied. “The city was a Mecca for attracting people, but seemed to think it didn’t need to do anything to retain them once they got here. And that’s just not right. It’s no good to be smug when it comes to job creation. Not only is the city not creating jobs, the city doesn’t think it needs to. So I figure, fine, I don’t need to live here.”

Although he doesn’t really lay blame, Vegas sees city government as both symptom and cause.

“The driver behind this smugness, this vicious cycle, is that a lot of the people who do manage to stay here get jobs in government. The government here has an economic self-interest, and the city is one of the largest employers in the city. The people who do get jobs in government have very little experience in the private sector and therefore have no idea how to go about job creation. And you can’t really blame the leadership, because the leadership is just a product of the problem. The leadership is just the group that has worked their way up in government. It’s a bubble mentality. You get a job in government and work your way up and you don’t see outside the bubble, you don’t see the need to grow the private sector.”

As far as things changing in the future, Vegas doesn’t see much chance.

“Five years ago it was all about biotech, which never happened. And now it’s all about green jobs, which isn’t happening. Five years from now there will be talk of something else, but nothing will really change.”