The Mayor as Portland's Salesman-in-Chief: "Portland could be a global leader, if we could just pull it together."
On a recent typically rainy late May afternoon, Portland mayor Sam Adams sat down and shared his thoughts on the city’s past and its current direction towards the future. The conversation revolved around similar macro-economic issues that were addressed previously by former City commissioner- and now newly-announced mayoral candidate- Charlie Hales and Multnomah County Commission Chair Jeff Cogen. Focusing on these economic issues allowed Mayor Adams to speak in length about his self-identified role as “Salesman-in-Chief” and the necessary steps taken to shore up the city’s- and therefore the region’s- economy and get it on a more firm, sustainable footing. Although the list of accomplishments provided by the Mayor was impressive, Adams kept returning to a key point: that the city “can improve.” The following is a condensed version- did I mention that Mayor Adams spoke in length for nearly an hour?- of this conversation.
Mayor Adams, my first question for you might perhaps be my toughest: What’s up with the hair? The first time I saw you with the new hair cut I didn’t recognize you. Did you lose a bet or something?
Well, when you are requested by a four-year old suffering from leukemia to shave your head for a fundraiser to cure cancer, you have no other choice but to comply. This was part of an annual fundraiser held by St. Baldrick's, and we ended up raising nearly $170,000. I’ve issued the challenge to other mayors including the mayors of San Francisco and Seattle. The only response I’ve received so far is from a mayor from a small town in Oregon- who is a woman!
That’s fantastic. And now for the easy questions. You are quite a veteran here at City Hall, working as chief of staff to Mayor Vera Katz before a stint as an elected commissioner. Now you are two-and-a-half years into your term as mayor. Would you be able to list an accomplishment or two you are most proud of during your time as mayor, as well as perhaps a disappointment you have dealt with?
My goal when I was sworn into office was to have Portland become the scrappiest, most successful global city. I didn’t necessarily view this as a “nice to-do” for the city. Instead, this was a have “to-do.” And accomplishing this goal requires the protection of everything we like about this city, but also changing long-standing vulnerabilities. When it comes to jobs and the economy, we all know that when the national economy sneezes, Portland gets malaria. We have educational vulnerabilities: with both the state’s best and worst schools in the same city. It is simply shameful that your chance at a good education in Portland depends on the geography of where you live and your race. Gangs have returned, and it is upsetting to me that city government has been unable to take on controversial issues like gun safety.
I am committed to making Portland a more equitable city while also making sure that we address the challenges of being a member of the global economy. I wasn’t expecting to be dealing with the worst recession since World War II, but at the same time I recognize that one-time funding for homes and businesses isn’t enough, but instead we need long-term funding. Portland hasn’t had an economic development strategy for fifteen years. This is probably not an issue when riding the national exuberance bubble, but without such a strategy when the bubble pops, it hurts.
This lack of an economic development strategy is pretty clear. You say the city hasn’t had one for fifteen years. Sometimes it feels like thirty. I was interested in talking with political leaders about the city’s economic issues as I had trouble identifying the local industries that anchor the regional economy and allow opportunities as our regional population expands in the future. Certain cities have such an identification with particular industries like Pittsburgh and the steel industry or Detroit and the auto manufacturing industry. In Portland, however, it’s almost like we’re known more for putting birds on things. What are your thoughts about that?
My economic outreach strategy is to focus on exporting more Portland goods and services to businesses around the world. We need to be less dependent on the Pacific Northwest regional economy. For example, I took a group from Columbia Green to Toronto for a green building conference, and now they have a contract building eco-roofs in Toronto. It’s harder to sell eco-roofs to businesses here in Portland or Seattle. My role is to be Portland’s “salesman-in-chief.” I’ll give you another example. There was a Japanese frozen food company, Ajinomoto, that was looking for the right place to invest in a rice processing plant. I was in downtown Tokyo and I met with Ajinomoto and convinced them to open their new processing plant in North Portland.
We have identified very distinct clusters of Portland’s economy that are going to be able to provide for tremendous economic opportunities: athletic and outdoor shoes; clean technology; advanced manufacturing; software and digital development; and research and commercialization. We have studied where we have strengths, studied were those strengths are going to grow the fastest, and where the best places are to sell these strengths. At the same time, we recognize we have done an inadequate job of supporting small businesses, which drive job growth and creation in this area. Over eighty percent of Portland’s small businesses have less than 10 employees. If each of these micro-businesses hired just one more employee, the unemployment rate would drop significantly.
Portland prides itself on its ethos of “livability.” But with the lack of an economic development strategy that you have mentioned, it’s become very difficult for certain residents to even be able to make a living. How do you square that dichotomy?
My administration is about improvement, and not about resting on our laurels. We are not about just protecting what we love- we have to improve. And to me, it keeps coming back to the economy, education, and public safety. As for the economy, I think it’s a good thing that Portland isn’t identified with just one single company as some other cities are. We have the new SoloPower deal, along with ReVolt, and we need to keep Vestas- and a case can be made that Portland is the emerging clean energy capitol, which provides business and commercial substance for the rest of Portland’s companies. My economic strategy is clear: the creation of 10,000 new jobs over five years. This strategy is also about making our local economy less dependent on the national economy- we need to “build that brand.” And to accomplish this, we are nearing the end of a two-year process that is going to merge Greenlight Greater Portland with our local regional economic development partners. This will allow the opportunity for us to improve our business marketing and retention strategies. Because without an economic development strategy, there is no focus, and it makes it harder to develop a brand. When the region markets different economic messages, you end up getting mush.
Tell me more about this Greenlight Greater Portland merger with the regional economic development efforts.
Yes, the end result is going to known as Greater Portland, Inc., and it is a public-private partnership of regional mayors, business leaders, and academics working to implement a single strategy for the entire region. I’ll give you an example of how this partnership will work. I was in Berlin with the mayor of Hillsboro, and we recruited a company for Gresham. Greater Portland will develop a regional brand that markets the region’s substantial value. I know I’ve said that we need to improve, but at the same time there are some pretty damn compelling reasons for businesses to locate here. There is a lower cost of living on the West Coast; speedy trade (no Rocky mountains to deal with, and the Columbia River basin has the third most trade in cities per capita); high productivity; and high education. The results of this merger are pretty early, but they are strong and positive enough for a merger that was just completed three months ago, legally.
So, Greater Portland Inc. combines local government, business leaders, and academics to build and market the region’s economic plan? Sounds pretty ambitious.
Well, I’m not going to let this merger fail. This isn’t an effort for prosperity, for the Adams administration or for me. When you merge organizations like this, you are taking steps towards significant, permanent and even fundamental change. I am continually asked: “How good is the Portland business climate?” and I can give you an answer: “It needs to improve.” And steps are taken towards these improvements. Consider the SoloPower deal, for example: that was a great team effort with the state. They were looking at Hillsboro, where they met resistance from local taxpayer issues. They were looking around the country for a spot to re-locate to. I said to them, “Give me two weeks, I think I can get some changes I’ve been working towards to bring you to Portland.” Three weeks later we announced their selection of Portland. And this occurred due to the ability to be agile enough to accomplish this goal. We financed the SoloPower deal with parking meter reserves that were used to back a state loan that backed a federal loan that helped bring SoloPower to come to Portland.
You listed these five significant clusters of the Portland economy. Where do you see the most opportunities for lower-education, lower-skilled residents who are going to need opportunities in the city’s future?
Definitely in advanced manufacturing. This sector is going to depend on productivity and quality and will employ hand-skilled people to help manufacture products. But I am going to emphasize that we need to stress the need for education and provide opportunities for lower-educated or lower-skilled residents to improve themselves. Consider that in Portland we have Gunderson Rail Cars and Zidell Barges which are two large employers of skilled craftsmen and you don’t necessarily need to go to college to work for them. In our region, manufacturing composes 28 to 30% of the economy, while the national average is fourteen percent. Our region’s manufacturing success has captured attention throughout the nation. The Brooking Institute has selected Portland as one of six cities to partner with to further develop exports, selecting us as we have all ready doubled our exports over the past three years. We are continuing to expand on the sectors that make up the core strength of the economy- for example, Keen Footwear established a plant on Swan Island. For our city’s size, we need to be scrappy. We don’t just bring the concept of streetcars to other cities, but we’re also going to make them in Clackamas.
If I can, I’d like to share a couple of quotes from the Young and the Restless report on Portland from a few years back. The first one: “Young people feel that Portland is not sufficiently selling its assets to people like them. Nor do they feel that Portland is aggressively pursuing obvious economic opportunities that would generate income and career opportunities.” And a follow-up quote: “[Participants said that Portland is a] Great place to work and play. (Also said: not a great place to work.)” Have things changed much in the five or six years since this report was published?
Boy, that sure sounds like that quote from Portlandia about young people coming here to retire. Look, I think Portlanders want to work. They just want to work at meaningful work. We’ve been referred to as a “Comeback city” ahead of the rest of the nation in its economic recovery. Despite Portland’s reputation, this is a place of deep innovation. Because we are a smaller city we need to rely on the innovation that comes from the dynamic interplay between public-private-education-labor partnerships. And these innovations and partnerships simply have not existed in the past and our city has suffered for it. During the 80s, our city was battered by the trend of mergers and acquisitions- we lost our banks. We need to rely on our raw materials to be the most successful- and smallest- small city in the world. We just haven’t had the leadership to plan for resiliency. I’d say the 2004 report is spot on, but the 2004 report ceases to apply when the economy implodes.
When I came into office in 2009, the region’s economy was bleeding 25,000 jobs a week. [NOTE: According to employment data provided by the state's Labor Market Information System, non-farm jobs in Multnomah County decreased from 460,800 in May 2008 when Adams beat Dozono in the run-off to 438,400 when Adams was sworn in as mayor in January 2009, a net loss of 22,400 jobs, averaging nearly 3,000 lost jobs per month.] I’ve always felt that Portland has had smart city government, just no economic plan. We were one of the few cities at the time with a general fund surplus, and instead of making deep cuts and then filling in the bottom, we took these savings and invested in such options as venture capital for 18-34 year olds. Will all of these options succeed? No. But those that do succeed helps brand the region.
Throughout your time working in City Hall as Mayor Katz’s Chief of Staff and as Commissioner, was this lack of a coherent, economic plan been your driving force to serve as mayor?
The lack of focus and plan and the results on economic development has long been the point of passion for my public service. Portland could be a global leader, if we could just pull it together.
In the summer of 2008, I was showing a group of international visitors around Portland, and you met them- as mayor-elect- at Metro where you declared your desire to make Portland “the most sustainable city in the world.” How is that coming a few years later?
We’re doing well, but we have room to improve. Since the adoption of our climate action plan, we are one of a few cities to reduce our greenhouse gases by two percent while the rest of the nation’s greenhouse gases went up seven percent. And if you remember, I also said we need to be the most sustainable city while building a “world class economy.” With the clean-tech sector of our economy, we have turned Portland into a “living laboratory” and we are building the largest, triple-zero, living building that will generate its own electricity, water, and deal with waste on-site at the location of an old Chinese restaurant near PSU. But we need to continue to be pushed, to take the LEED platinum and go to the next level.
There are risks with our sustainability agenda, no doubt about it. But these risks are worth the strategy. Some cities took their federal stimulus money and handed it over to a number of projects and seen little in return. We took $2.4 million of funds to start seed capital for Clean Energy Works Portland, now Clean Energy Oregon, and later received $20 million in stimulus funds to expand the program. This allowed us the opportunity to spend stimulus funds in a social and equitable manner. We were able to provide up-front cash for homeowners to purchase insulation and a water heater. Clean Energy Works is a for-profit non-profit- it’s not a giveaway. It’s about creating a market but in a socially responsible way, offering the only on-bill financing programs in the nation. A lot of this isn’t sexy, strategy isn’t sexy. But Clean Energy Works is an example of people paying it back, we’re employing people, we’re helping people skill up through partnership with labor. Green for All is our national partner to help develop a green economy. The equity that people had in their homes and buildings to get a loan a few years simply doesn’t exist anymore. Banks in the past would provide loans for cars, boats, or a bike, but could never imagine providing a loan for green building. Early returns for Clean Energy Oregon have been very positive and appears to be headed in the right direction.
Chicago is currently undertaking the efforts to be the first carbon-neutral city. Are you feeling the pressure yet?
(Laughs.) I love the competition with Chicago! I love Rahm Emmanuel- I am looking forward to seeing him at the next mayoral conference. He’s been quoted as saying that he wants to “kick Portland’s ass.” The competition is great! Mayor Gregory Robertson of Vancouver, B.C. said he wants to make his city the “most livable” while I said that Portland is going to be the “most sustainable” and Rahm wants Chicago to be carbon-neutral. All it means is that we’re headed in the right direction, and we support each other and trade ideas.
Okay, a couple of political nitty gritty questions. As you know, Charlie Hales recently announced his bid for mayor, and there might be other contenders who will announce. It might be a little less easier for you to keep your job as it was to have gotten initially elected. (NOTE: Adams defeated Sho Dozono with 58% of the vote in the spring 2008 primary election for mayor, avoiding a run-off election in the fall.) You worked with former Commissioner Hales when he worked with your former boss Mayor Katz on a number of projects that shaped the city. By all accounts, there are plenty of similarities between you and Hales- with your commitment to streetcars and sustainability. Despite these similarities, would you be able to offer a key difference between yourself and Hales?
There is a day in which I will deal with election politics. And today is not that day.
Okay. On a similar note, but focusing on you particularly, every elected official never feels that their agenda can be complete in their first term. What priorities do you feel are going to need longer then a single term to see completed?
I ran for mayor on a concrete agenda, a specific agenda. And my time in office has been spent on improving the agenda I advocated as a candidate and improving partnerships. I’ve got a lot done, and we are heading in the right direction. But I am not going to concede or surrender any of my goals for the city. When I announced my mayoral bid in 2006 or 2007, the national recession had not hit upon us. People would not call on us to abandon our goals because of this recession. I am passionate about what is possible, passionate about getting stuff done. Creating 10,000 jobs- we need to do it. Doubling the high school graduation rate- we need to do it. I am not going to concede these goals.
So those are the metrics to measure your success?
Those are the metrics, and I am going to meet them.
Update, 2:00 p.m.: Corrected figures on job losses when Adams was sworn in as mayor as well as amount of seed funding for Clean Energy Works.