Jobs Watch: Expanding Metro’s mission

ben-blogMetro regional government leaders have operated for years on the belief that economic development and jobs are not part of their mission. Should they be? Tom Hughes believes they should be. Could his approach to creating jobs as mayor of Hillsboro work on a regional level?

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Metro regional government leaders have operated for years on the belief that economic development and jobs are not part of their mission. Should they be? Tom Hughes believes they should.

Hughes, a self-described “moderate progressive Democrat,” is running for Metro president on a platform of job creation, touting his experience wooing major employers such as Intel, Solarworld and Genentech as mayor of Hillsboro. His opponent, Bob Stacey, former executive director of 1,000 Friends of Oregon, has earned endorsements from John Kitzhaber and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters for his long record of standing up for farms and forests and resisting sprawl.

The governmental body Hughes and Stacey are vying to run is unique in the nation, overseeing 25 cities in three counties with a combined population of 1.5 million people. Metro is better known for its work on the urban growth boundary, recycling and running the Oregon Zoo. Metro staffers are renowned for their exceptionally detailed maps and encyclopedic knowledge of land use laws, but they’ve never been known for economic boosterism. What power does the Metro president have to create jobs?

“Same power that the mayor of Hillsboro has,” Hughes told me during a recent interview. “It’s not about exercising government power. In some cases it’s about restraining government power. A lot of it boils down to your effectiveness as a personal representative of your region. If you’re the top elected official for a body that’s supposed to represent the entire region, you should be making the pitch to bring jobs into the region, and the fact that the charter doesn’t give you that responsibility doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. The charter may not say you can do it, but it also doesn’t say that you can’t do it.”

Metro leaders never have been known for pitching the region as open for business in board rooms and on trade junkets. Hughes argues it’s time to change that. Hughes, who currently serves as a senior adviser for Tonkon Torp, says: “Metro does a lot of stuff that directly influences economic development, and they have always done it in the past while denying they have any responsibility. It would be silly to have an organization that has all of these other planning responsibilities in the region but doesn’t have a responsibility for economic development. But that’s been Metro’s response when people warn them that they’re going to screw up their ability to attract and recruit and retain companies.”

Hughes says he is baffled by Metro’s decision to expand the urban growth boundary in Damascus in remote East Multnomah County as opposed to South Hillsboro. Hillsboro has good soil for farming but it also has the state’s most important private employer in Intel, plus many major players looking to move into the area or expand. That is far from the case in Damascus. “There’s no demand in Damascus,” Hughes says. “No market whatsoever. There’s no infrastructure, no major employer to create job synergy. But the old policy said you have to go to Damascus because the soil is poor.”

Point taken. But does the urban growth boundary need to expand at all? Vacancy rates are soaring and it isn’t hard to find parcels of all sizes at discounted rates. Portland mayor Sam Adams has made the argument that there is no need to expand the urban growth boundary when plenty of land (albeit environmentally challenged land) exists within Portland, including large properties in Portland Harbor well served by rail, river and highway.

But the companies Hughes has experience with recruiting don’t necessarily care about rail and docks. “The companies that we’re trying to recruit all have a lot of choices about where they can go,” says Hughes. “You can’t offer a potential developer a site that needs $30 million in remediation when he’s got one in Austin where he doesn’t have to do that.”

Hughes certainly has a record of leading major employers through the red tape to efficient expansion. One example he cites involves a jaw-dropping 25,000 inspections on 11,000 permits for an Intel expansion over 12 months.

Is that the sort of pro-business attitude that Metro needs?

Or does it capitulate to corporate needs too neatly?

With Oregon’s unemployment rate stuck at about 10.6% for seven months in a row, is it time for the regional government with jurisdiction over almost half of the state’s population to move aggressively into the jobs arena?

Or is Metro better off sticking to planning and recycling and preserving prime farmland, leaving the daunting task of economic development to the pros?

Ben Jacklet is managing editor of Oregon Business.

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