A new study of Portland’s business climate shows the “City That Works” might deserve another, less laudatory nickname.
But rather than let Portland become the “City of Meh,” Mayor Sam Adams, on behalf of Portland Development Commission officials, rejected the new $14,000 study by an economist at Portland’s ECONorthwest.
The mayor characterized the independent analysis that PDC commissioned this fall as unimaginative and incomplete.
“While we at the city and PDC have great respect for ECONorthwest as an organization and for the quality of work and analysis the firm produces, we do not believe the deliverable presented to PDC captures the intent of what was requested or the creativity and comprehensiveness of what was expected,” Adams wrote in a letter to ECONorthwest that WW obtained in a public records request.
So what exactly did the 21-page report say about Portland? The author of the report, Robert Whelan, concludes, “The analysis paints a very compelling story for Portland.”
Just not compelling enough, apparently.
Compared with seven other similar cities in the West—Seattle, San Jose, Boise, Las Vegas, Denver, Hillsboro and Vancouver, Wash.—Portland is neither the best nor the worst in several categories.
The cost of driving downtown to work, for example, puts Portland in the No. 3 spot compared with the other cities. Portland ranks the same in terms of cost of living. It’s cheaper to live in Portland than in either Seattle or San Jose, but the price of living among tall bikes, tattoos and too many baristas exceeds the cost of comfort in the five other locales.
This middling performance extends to Portland’s average wages, which rank somewhere in the middle compared with the other cities, according to the study.
ECONorthwest, the go-to firm for public agencies across the city, including Portland Public Schools, also sought to measure qualitative aspects of living in Portland. Among the indices it looked at were weather, crime rates and air quality. In all of these measures, Portland fell in the middle of the pack.
“The goal was to provide an objective analysis knowing that some findings would be welcome, but others less so,” Whelan, the study’s author, wrote in an introduction to the report.
Whelan declined to be interviewed about his report, which he called a draft. He wrote in an email that “interviews should be coordinated through the client.”
Patrick Quinton, a manager of urban development at PDC, the client, says the study grew out of the debate over Measures 66 and 67, the January ballot initiatives that successfully raised income taxes on Oregon companies and its highest-earning residents. Opponents of those tax increases point to Measures 66 and 67 as evidence that Oregon is hostile toward business.
In response, PDC sought to identify other ways to quantify the positive aspects of doing business in Portland, Oregon’s largest city.
But Quinton says what ECONorthwest turned in was “too much of a rehash” that didn’t use enough creative indicators to measure Portland’s true value.
“It didn’t really meet our needs,” Quinton says. “We end up looking good on some indicators and not others.”
Yet PDC has no intention of not paying the $14,000 to ECONorthwest, even though the agency is setting aside the consultants’ initial findings. Shawn Uhlman, a spokesman for PDC, says PDC officials will take the study in-house.
Quinton denies PDC was looking for a marketing device. “If we were doing a marketing piece, we wouldn’t have hired ECONorthwest,” Quinton said. “The goal was to get objective analysis.”
Yet Adams’ letter to ECONorthwest undercuts that assertion. It suggests what the city wanted was a marketing piece in the guise of economic analysis.
“I believe by claiming and understanding our regional assets and quality of life in economic terms we will be more effective at our economic development work,” Adams writes. “In my experience, the case for doing business in Portland is largely unknown nationally and internationally; changing the perception will improve our ability to recruit and retain companies.”
Business groups don’t appear to agree. On Tuesday, the Portland Business Alliance released its own study from ECONorthwest that echoes PDC’s rejected report.
FACT: To read the study, go to wweek.com/bizclimate.