Does Oregon’s Tech Sector Have An Identity Crisis?

Joan McGuire
Portland's rush hour traffic

Oregon’s thriving tech industry continues to draw young talent to the region, but the uptick in population could decrease the quality of life that lures companies to Oregon in the first place. 

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One month ago, biotech company Genentech announced the opening of a new patient support center in Portland’s Lloyd Center Tower. The news may sound routine at first. Tech companies have been migrating to Portland en masse for some time now. However, Portland isn’t known for its thriving biotech sector, and according to one economic expert on the region, most likely never will be.

But according to Genentech Vice President of Access Solutions Claire Scott, the decision to bring 300 Genentech jobs to Oregon wasn’t based on a thriving biotech sector, but rather the unique culture Oregon has to offer.

“We thought it would be a great place for our employees,” she said, citing the amenities, transit options, and overall quality of life.

Scott also pointed out the high caliber of Oregon’s nonprofit sector, metioning that state’s highly educated, “mission-driven” workforce sees voulteerism as an increasingly important factor in choosing where to live.

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Portland, as well as other Oregon cities like Eugene, Bend, and Beaverton, are experiencing an influx of talent and tech-industry expansion due to the high quality of life provided by the area. However, there are reasons to believe this influx of talent could be leading Portland to a sort of identity crisis.

“Population growth puts pressure on infrastructure” says Skip Newberry, president and CEO of the Technology Association of Oregon. According to Newberry, unless steps are taken soon, Portland’s reputation could quickly sour.

Instead of fine dining, hiking trails and public transportation, the city could become known for congestion, homelesseness and high cost of living.

With more tech industry employees purchasing housing, the more the cost of city living could climb. The more these employees drive to work and use public amenities, the more quality of life begins to sag.

Essentially, Oregon’s tech sector might be about to pay the piper.

It’s a familiar story. Seattle and San Francisco, once known for their laid-back culture and high quality of life, are now becoming equally well-known for their high cost of living.

While Portland has benefited from siphoning off tech talent from Seattle, it now faces a prickly, if poetically just, problem. The less livable Portland becomes, the more it will have to compete with other up-and-coming tech sector cities like Austin, Denver and Salt Lake City.

For now, Portland has some built-in advantages. It’s just a short flight away from the tech-saturated Bay Area, which Genentech said was part of the decision to open the Portland office.

The cost of living, including buying a house, is still far lower than in the Bay Area, making Portland a destination for tech workers seeking to put down roots and raise a family.

However, complications from the influx of tech-sector talent may cause some of those advantages to level off.

That’s not to say Portland is destined to fly too close to the sun, but measures must be taken to ensure these favorable conditions continue.

Measures like the Southeast Powell Project has already eased congestion and traffic safety with the installation of smart cameras. The Trimet App has similarly harnessed modern technology to ease congestion woes.

Still, there’s a long way to go. Earlier this month, a pedestrian was struck and killed on Southeast Foster Road, just as city leaders celebrated the completion a $9 million safety project. 

“There’s some exciting stuff going on in scrappier kinds of projects” says Newberry, who believes Portland needs to act fast if it is going to adjust to the byproducts of its success.

“We have a five to fifteen year window to figure this out,” says Newberry. He added he believes the window is on the shorter end of that spectrum.

It’s also possible other areas in Oregon, namely Eugene and Bend, could do more of the tech sector’s heavy lifting. The cost of living is lower in Eugene, and the city has talent pipelines from the University of Oregon and Oregon State University.

Bend also has a tech sector with connections to Seattle and the Bay Area. Portland’s identity crisis could be mitigated by other Oregon cities following its example.

Time will tell how this identity crisis will play out. Oregon’s tech sector is here to stay, the question then becomes how to keep the area livable.

Some things about Oregon, like the beautiful outdoors, passionate nonprofit sector and thriving culinary scene will continue to give the region good branding.

Other elements, like congestion and cost of living, could prove precarious.

“I don’t think we have lost our identity, but it will continue to evolve,” says Newberry. “We can’t just hang our hats on quality of life.”

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