Political goals and business results

By Dave Lister
Former Small Business Advisory Councilor advisor,
Oregonian Columnist

In 2005, while serving on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council, I was asked to chair a committee charged with a daunting task. After years of voluminous, blue-ribbon studies on job creation and economic development had been produced and largely ignored, we were to define for the City Council the needs of business — in one page or less. With the upcoming general election, it seems appropriate to share the fruits of that effort with state and local office-seekers and sitting officials. Considering Oregon’s unemployment rate and projected budget deficits, it’s interesting to consider our committee’s four key points and contrast them with what’s happened in the interim.

– When public agencies concerned with development issues are pursuing redevelopment, changes to commercial corridors or areas of commercial concentration, job retention and creation must be the primary factor.
During the last five years, we’ve seen a fair share of redevelopment. But this goal has not been met, particularly in Portland. Erecting condos and gentrifying neighborhoods have replaced machine shops with espresso stands and light manufacturing with restaurants. Living-wage jobs for skilled labor have been replaced with minimum-, or slightly better than minimum-wage jobs in the service sector. Development of the new Milwaukie light-rail line will displace hundreds of well-established companies. Many will relocate. Some will call it quits. In the end I believe it will be a net loss for private-sector jobs.

-In order to be profitable and to create jobs, business requires a cost climate of certainty and constancy.

There are many reasons a business may choose to locate or remain here even if its owners perceive they are dealing with higher taxes or fees than they might elsewhere in the nation. As long as those costs remain relatively constant, they aren’t a burden. But when businesses are hit with retroactive tax increases, new burdens and fees or unreasonable system-development charges, they need to take a second look. Measures 66 and 67 were a perfect example of a violation of this principle.

-A sound transportation infrastructure is vital for a healthy business environment.

Here we have failed miserably. Traditionally a distribution hub, Portland has lost more and more companies to places like Spokane because of gridlock. We continue to engage in an ongoing debate over the nature of the replacement for the Interstate 5 bridge. During this debate I-5, a vital commercial artery from Canada to Mexico, remains coagulated several hours each day. The Sellwood Bridge crumbles while both commercial traffic and mass-transit vehicles are detoured dozens of miles.

Small businesses and large businesses are mutually reliant.

In Portland — and in Oregon — we love to tout our small-business economy. But without the large payrolls of big businesses fueling that economy, there will be no one to frequent the bistros, garden shops and bookstores that make up that economy. We need Greenbrier building barges and railcars, Intel pumping out computer chips and, yes, we need Wal-Mart too.

Statements such as the one our committee produced, of course, have a preamble. Ours was simple:

– The essential elements for quality of life are a job and economic stability.

Perhaps that was our fallacy. I believe that to be true. Many others believe it to be true as well. But I have to begin to wonder if, in Oregon, the majority no longer believe it to be true. If it’s no longer true, the other points of our committee’s statement are moot. If this premise is no longer true, then we’ll continue to slog forward in economic mediocrity.