Oregon Convention Center visitors are scared, according to Portland's travel representatives.
The Convention Center's annual 615,000 visiting out-of-towners can't peacefully enjoy their beer summits and societies for the studies of plant diseases because of aggressive panhandlers inside and outside the building and nearby hotels, says Jeff Miller, president and chief executive officer of Travel Portland.
"We met with the representative of the American Phytopathological Society yesterday at the OCC and her first comment was the huge number of aggressive panhandlers her delegates are dealing with in and around the center and their hotels," Miller wrote in an Aug. 4 email to the City Council that he CC'd to Portland hotel managers and business owners.
"These 1,500 delegates have now had to develop a buddy system to walk back to their hotels as they don't feel safe," Miller wrote. "We heard the same comment from the Elks and other groups…. We need action and we need it now or the press we get in The New York Times will not be the positive glowing comments we have been used to recently."
Leah Barna, meeting manager for both the Controlled Release Society and 2012 World Brewing Congress, wrote in an Aug. 4 email to Travel Portland vice president of convention sales Michael Smith that she is stalling the contract for the World Brewing Congress—which had 825 people attend its gathering in Hawaii—"until this issue is resolved to our satisfaction."
But visitors at the Convention Center's big draw last weekend seemed unaware of the city's "problem children," as Barna termed panhandlers in her email.
The Convention Center hosted 1,800 registrants for the 2009 Sock Summit on Aug. 6-9.
Two women from Sacramento and Chicago said they hadn't seen any panhandlers during their stay, either inside the Convention Center building or traveling to and from their hotels.
And Gina Sharpe, a Convention Center employee who has set up and broken down conventionsfor 3 1/2 years, also said she has never heard of any problems with the homeless.
"We have 24-hour security with cameras inside and around the building," she told WW. "If anyone were to walk in off the street, we'd ask them to leave right away."
Not a single panhandler was seen Sunday afternoon in the building, nor on the sidewalks outside.
Convention Center executive director Jeff Blosser says the past three conventions have all complained about panhandlers near the building as well as citywide.
"We have a real issue with clients saying we have to do something about the problems with panhandlers downtown and on the light rail," Blosser says.
Both Blosser and Miller suggest that Portland businesses and city officials work together to find a solution to improve convention delegates' experience downtown and in the Lloyd District.
"The sit-lie task force has done a lot of very good work, but I think there's more work to be done," Miller says. "I think we need to continue the conversation. We need to understand that delegates are very vital to our town, and we need to take great care of them."
His reference to "sit-lie" is a city ordinance that bans sitting or lying on sidewalks downtown and in the Rose Quarter between 7 am and 9 pm.
Portland's police no longer enforce the city's sit-lie ordinance after a Multnomah County circuit judge rejected the rule as being in conflict with the state's disorderly conduct law. Instead, police will arrest people for low-level criminal offenses, The Oregonian reported Aug. 5.
When there's greater police enforcement downtown, more homeless people come to the east side, according to Liz Weber, an outreach worker for JOIN, a nonprofit serving the homeless.
"The majority of people I know that panhandle in that area are more centered around the intersection of MLK and Broadway, and on the I-5 on- and off-ramps," says Weber. "I haven't seen a lot of people at the Convention Center panhandling."
The highlight of last weekend's Sock Summit at the Convention Center? A new Guinness World Record for the most people knitting at once—935.