Think about economic development without thinking about bulldozers, or ribbon cuttings, or tax breaks.
Now you’re being creative.
Creative Portland, the city-chartered nonprofit, has been looking at economic development that way, envisioning a city where businesses that trade in skills and information support higher-paid workers and take the place in the local economy of the old industries that have been disappearing for decades.
Its goal is not to attract the next industrial employer that would offer to turn hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tax breaks into hundreds of jobs, but to attract people with skills, especially those who can bring their work with them, and have them generate the economic energy themselves.
If that sounds familiar, it is. Every city in America wants these people, but Portland has stuff that not everyone else has, like historic architecture, water views, arts and culture and restaurants.
Go to the three-year-old website liveworkportland.org/ and you can see the approach: Selling Portland as a lifestyle instead of a column of numbers, and showing the city through the eyes of people who have come here from away and embraced it. The site is a powerful recruiting tool for the city, but not for any one job or company. The idea is to bring people here, one or two at a time.
Their goal of adding 10,000 new Portlanders in 10 years sounds too good to be true, but if they got even halfway there, it would be the biggest economic development coup this city has ever seen.
Andy Graham headed the Creative Portland marketing committee, which built the website, and he challenges a lot of conventional notions about growth. “People have naturally gravitated here,” Graham said, “They get here and they discover that ‘this is where I belong.’“
Bringing more of those people here will require changing the way we think about development. These are some of the myths:
1. The creative economy is all about artists.
No. Graham says that Portland does not need to attract artists. If Portland can attract more of the kind of people who might like to go to a play, hear music in a club or buy a painting, they will attract the artists.
2. Economic development is all about getting businesses to move.
No. It’s also about getting workers to move. Businesses grow and move when they have the right talent pool to choose from. The liveworkportland idea is to attract well-educated people who have an entrepreneurial spirit and who – let’s face it – are willing to sacrifice some financial opportunity for livability.
3. City Hall will lead on development.
Maybe, but it works the other way, too, Graham said. No city official set a goal of starting so many restaurants that Portland would become a food-tourist destination. But that’s what happened when individuals took the risk of starting those businesses one at a time, putting Portland on the map for people who like to eat and creating jobs for the people who feed them. The same could work for other kinds of businesses, too.
The city is also engaged in more traditional business recruitment efforts, but that doesn’t mean it’s not behind the liveworkportland approach, said Greg Mitchell, the city’s economic development director.
“The most effective way to sell ourselves is to sell the lifestyle,” he said.
The timing is good, too. Last month, the Brookings Institution released a study that said that urban real estate in walkable communities is booming in value while suburban values are tanking.
A major development is almost under way in Bayside that would turn what has been a vacant former rail yard into market-rate housing and retail shops. Plans are under review for three high-end housing projects in the India Street neighborhood (including one proposed by a company owned by S. Donald Sussman, who is also the majority owner of this newspaper).
Portland is already a destination for people who don’t want to jump in a car every time they need something. Giving them more places to live should just speed up the process.
It may not be the kind of economic development that we’ve come to expect, but it could be just as big.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org