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Scott Bruun: Does Portland Really Want Your Business?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Photo credit: Ed Schipul on Flickr. Creative Commons license. (Image cropped)

Driving north into Portland.  A big, roadside billboard.  On it, a picture of the new governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, wearing a white t-shirt emblazoned with the image of the Golden State’s flag.  And in huge block lettering next to the governor’s image: “California wants your business.”  Turns out the same image had been placed that year in numerous other cities around the country.

I remember seeing it for the first time about 10 years ago. On Barbur Boulevard

Notwithstanding the real challenges of doing business in California, I’ve thought over the years how nearly perfect that promotional campaign was.  It didn’t mention California’s beautiful beaches, mountains, deserts or redwoods. Nor did it mention that state’s unique cultural and entertainment attractions, even though it’s all true.  

Instead, it was simply a sentiment that told businesses and investors, in effect, “we want you here, you are welcome here.” 

Compare that to the sentiments coming from Portland City Hall.

First, for the record, Portland is a uniquely fantastic city: A beautiful environment. Trend-setting restaurants, art and culture. Beer, books, bikes and roasted beans.  Accessibility.  A local combination of philanthropy and medical research talent that may one day very well cure cancer.  And, of course, the proud home of the Blazers, Timbers and Winterhawks.

Portland is a great city.  But it’s a great city despite its governance, not because of it. Our elected city leaders have long been indifferent, at times hostile, toward Portland’s commercial and wealth creating activities.  Yet without this wealth creation, that is to say without the industries that produce things the rest of the world wants or needs, there’s no economic foundation for Portland’s cultural and civic vitality. 

Portland Street Fee

Mayor Charlie Hales and Councilman Steve Novick are painfully aware that their May launch of the street fee trial balloon was about as successful as the Hindenburg’s last landing.  

I wonder, though, if Hales and Novick truly see it as Portland’s business community saw it?  Namely, another in a long line of city hall salvos making it harder to compete. Another indication that the economic foundation of our city, when considered at all, is viewed with thinly-veiled contempt.

Scott Bruun Logo

The real issue is not about streets, per se. For Portland or any other major city, transportation is arguably the most important of municipal responsibilities.

And yes, Portland’s streets are in serious need of repair. 

At a fundamental level, it’s a question of priorities.  Why can’t Portland adequately perform the most basic municipal duty, street repair, with current resources? 

Why does Portland need more money?  When you consider the staggering array of fees and taxes that a Portland business already pays, not to mention what that same business pays to Multnomah County, Salem and Uncle Sam, doesn’t it seem fair for them to believe that potholes should get filled with current resources?

Business Values 

But of course, the real core issue is much bigger than the potholes needing filled. At core is the question of value, or lack thereof, that our city leaders place in the businesses that provide Portland’s jobs. 

Said differently, the real issue is City Hall’s attitude toward the business and industries that underwrite all the fun and beautiful things we love about Portland.  Whether through conscious antagonism or blind neglect, whether through street fees or any number of new fees, ordinances and employer mandates, the message seems clear: Portland does not want your business.

And if that’s incorrect, if they really do want your business, then they’re doing a ridiculously poor job demonstrating it.

Let’s be clear, Portland is not looking for billboards featuring Mayor Hales or Councilman Novick in t-shirts.  Trust me. 

Nor is Portland looking to sell the sort of slavish corporate cronyism and lowest-common-denominator giveaways that have plagued other cities and states.  Portland doesn’t need this.  Our city attracts without gimmick.

All we really need is a gradual shift at City Hall. A little more work toward inclusion.  A little better understanding of the positive, irreplaceable role of Portland’s private sector. A little less indifference. 

Doing these easy things would, boldly and for the first time, shout: “Portland wants your business.”


Scott Bruun

Scott Bruun

Scott Bruun is a fifth-generation Oregonian and recovering politician. He lives with his family in the 'burbs, yet dutifully commutes to Portland every day where he earns his living on the fifth floor of Big Pink.

Home Page Photo Credit: Paul VanDerWerf


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