Detroit’s Poster Child

Photo: Altheia McCallum
Monique Claiborne, the new president and CEO of Greater Portland Inc

The new head of Greater Portland Inc draws on her experience of economic recovery in Detroit. 

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Monique Claiborne is the new president and CEO of Greater Portland Inc, the region’s economic development agency. The former legislative operations chief financial officer for the City of Detroit oversaw a more than $100 million budget for legislative departments during Detroit’s economic recovery from bankruptcy in 2013.

Here Claiborne discusses her priorities for the region’s economic recovery as it emerges from the pandemic-driven downturn.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

Portland arguably faces its biggest challenge in a generation because of the economic problems of the pandemic, social unrest and growing homelessness crisis. To what extent can the Portland area recover economically to its pre-pandemic heyday?   

I have been in Portland for a number of years, but I am from Detroit. I started out doing business attraction and direct foreign investment in Southeast Michigan. Coming from Detroit, I am the poster child of negative press. I am not new to this at all. Detroit was the largest municipal bankruptcy in the country. There was homelessness, political unrest. It is a similar climate to what we are seeing in Portland right now.

What I have learned from the experience in Detroit is the importance of sharing our narrative. It may be harder to do relocation projects. Expansion  projects and retention projects are low-hanging fruit, and that is how we can grow the economy. That is where we need to have a strong focus. We need to tap into that more and focus on relocation a little later for folks who are new to Portland.

What is the narrative for the Greater Portland region?

The narrative is that we are open for business. Despite 2020 we are stronger. When there are challenges, there are opportunities. The year 2020 was challenging for municipalities and regions across the country. Portland wasn’t exempt from that. Now it is important to take up that narrative and say there are a number of advantages here: the talent pool, the West Coast affordability.

What would you like to achieve in the first six months in the role?

We will execute on the recovery plan. We want to offer short-term relief, provide rent assistance where we can, access to capital. Long term, we need to make sure businesses are stronger going forward.

We supported a number of counties and cities in their grant applications for federal funding. We want to support our municipalities, which are in turn supporting businesses and providing short-term relief that they need to survive.

What would you say to businesses and investors who are shying away from Portland because of the deterioration of downtown?  

Last year, for every dollar that was invested in Greater Portland Inc, we brought in $42 in income growth. It is important to note that companies are investing in the region. There have been a number of companies that have expanded: Genentech in Hillsboro, Twist Bioscience in Wilsonville. We continue to bring in projects. It is a top priority of mine to bring in more.

What is the biggest challenge Portland faces right now in attracting investment?

The biggest challenge we face is connecting with people. I don’t know if Portland is more challenged than other municipalities. We can’t get on a plane as much; we are not out at trade shows; we are not meeting with site selectors to the extent we were in years past. That may have slowed down growth. Over the last year, GPI has looked at how we can foster and cultivate strong relationships and leads.

Does Portland have a PR problem that will hinder investment?

As I mentioned, I am from Detroit. I am sure you can go down the list of all the things you have heard about Detroit. But once people got to Detroit, they were amazed that it was not as bad as they thought. It is a tale of two cities. Companies still have strategic goals; they are still moving, they are still expanding, they are still operating.

There is an 18- to 20-month life cycle when it comes to making these decisions. You still have companies that are moving despite the pandemic. It is important to make those connections with the decision-makers, get them on the ground — then they will say they can come here.

How do you plan to make sure the Portland area’s economic recovery is equitable and inclusive?

There is a very deliberate approach now to economic development that we did not see in years past. There is an equitable lens. All plans, discussions and white papers are inclusive of BIPOC communities. It is very intentional.

In formulating those ideas, we want to grow from within, we don’t need to grow from outside of the region. We don’t have to have these large trophy projects; we can have projects from Main Street. We don’t have to totally focus on high-paying jobs; we are also bringing in jobs that are inclusive of everyone in the region.

We are going to focus on workforce development — we are pulling those at the bottom of the ladder up as the economy grows. There is intentionality with all the equitable solutions. I want to make sure we are executing on that and that it is not just lip service.

You served as Detroit’s legislative operations chief financial officer. What is the most valuable lesson you learned in that role that you can apply to Portland?

Accountability is crucial. Prior to Detroit’s bankruptcy, there was just the CFO. You had departments and they did their own budgets. Post-bankruptcy, they formed the office of CFO. Each department or agency had its own CFO. They were accountable for their budgets as opposed to department heads not having much accountability.

In Detroit we saw a level of scrutiny that we hadn’t seen in years past to ensure we didn’t make the same mistakes. If I were to translate those experiences to Portland, it is having the same level of accountability. We talked about equitable economic development — who is being held accountable and to what level? We should hold decision-makers accountable for the things they say and the things they say they are going to do.

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