Mayoral candidates Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith faced off in a tech-focused debate at the downtown office of local online video start-up Elemental Technologies today.
Portland's tech industry was previously considered to be backing Eileen Brady, and now the remaining candidates are looking to establish their credentials in the city's so-called "software cluster."
Although the talk was often sidetracked by unrelated issues like gun control, the CRC and the library tax, a number of relevant topics were discussed, including faster broadband, technical education, the Portland Seed Fund, and making city government itself more tech savvy.
Despite rambling, Smith ultimately offered more concrete ideas. Amongst other things, Smith—who listed his "geek credentials" as having played RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons and Champions, and owning an Atari 2600 as a kid—suggested that Portland should be competing in the "video game realm," proclaiming video games the "art form of our generation"; further opening up city data and hosting more hackathons, and creating apps for civic engagement.
For his part, Hales—who cited his geek cred as having lived with electrical engineering students in college—suggested helping develop private sector partnerships with local colleges for engineering students; reducing the number of city administration employees to help further fund programs like the Portland Seed Fund; and making the building permit process paperless.
But the most relevant question of the day was how the city could hold on to its successful tech start ups, instead of losing them to Silicon Valley.
Smith focused on liveability: "There will be those who will come to you and say primarily: Hey, what we need to do is reduce taxes on upper income earners, reduce spending and making it easier to do things like, I dunno: build a casino or move coal through the city and the Columbia River Crossing. But in fact what that will do is make it more difficult to do anything about education, erode the livability, which was number one on the PDC software cluster rankings of why people in the software industry like Portland in the first place."
Hales chose to focus on infrastructure, and pointed the audience to his website for his policy, which is directed at helping emerging tech businesses find office space without having to sign long leases, noting that host Elemental has already moved multiple times in its six-year existence.
Both are reasonable answers. Most of Portland's tech startups don't quite offer comparable wages or job opportunities compared with bigger tech industries in other cities, but they lure much of their talent with the promise of Portland's superior and less expensive quality of life. And landlords wanting tech executives to sign three-year leases on offices, when they expect their company to double in size every year, has been an ongoing issue for many businesses.
At the close of the forum, Hales also debuted a new platform plank. He said he wants to be remembered as the mayor who stabilized education funding—with a state sales tax.
Smith later told The Oregonian he does not support an Oregon sales tax.
UPDATE: Here's the video of the debate