A New Plan For Portland

Greater Portland Inc.
Bedrock CEO Kofi Bonner delivers the keynote address at the GPI Economic Summit.

Public-private partnerships must lean on philanthropy to revitalize the greater Portland area, and other takeaways from the Greater Portland Economic Summit. 

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In some respects, the Greater Portland Economic Summit on September 30 was a return to normal. 

Business, philanthropic and political leaders from the state’s largest city and the surrounding area gathered around tables, sipped coffee, ate boxed breakfasts, and listened to speakers as they discussed how public-private partnerships could further the region’s economic development. 

But for someone who had attended the event in February of 2020, and watched dancing mascots celebrate a slew of companies, including software media enterprise RealWare and synthetic diamond manufacturer Element Six setting up shop in the greater Portland region, it felt like everything had changed. And not just because of facemasks, vaccination cards, and livestream for the at-home audience. 

Greater Portland Inc President and CEO Monique Claiborne in her opening address. Credit: Greater Portland Inc.

It was a striking change of tone from two years ago, when the region was coming off five consecutive years of economic growth. 

The summit served as a call to action, and an opportunity to do things differently. Comparing the Portland region to post financial-crisis Detroit, the area’s economic woes were cast in an opportunistic light.  Collaboration with philanthropic organizations was a key component of the keynote speaker’s address. A call for collaboration, and finding new ways of funding and executing public-private partnerships, sent a clear message to the industry leaders in the audience: 

Portland’s crisis is an opportunity, one that should not, nor could not, be wasted. 

Comparing greater Portland to other regional competitors like Denver, Seattle and San Francisco painted a grim picture. Portland accounted for less than 10% of the regional job growth. The COVID-19 Pandemic, civil unrest, and negative national media coverage were the prime suspects in the region’s decline.  

Bedrock CEO Kofi Bonner delivers the keynote address. Credit: Greater Portland Inc.

There were still success stories to celebrate. Leaders from biotech firm Twist Bioscience and PNC Bank appeared to explain why they chose to expand into the greater Portland region. 

But overall, the tone of the morning was one of urgency. 

“The race has started, the gun has been fired, and we aren’t even on the block yet,” said Greater Portland Inc President and CEO Monique Claiborne in her opening address. “Are you willing to lace up your sneakers and haul ass to the finish line?”

While every region has been impacted by pandemic decline, the Portland economy has been unable to attract outside companies at the same rate. However, The greater West Coast region anticipates 20,000 jobs, and $8.7 billion in industry growth, according to GPI’s data, which will be up for grabs in the coming decade as companies expand.

In order to attract these incoming dollars, the region will have to refine its market, and embrace trends in artificial intelligence and predictive data technology to hone in on what companies would thrive in the region, and which ones to pursue. 

Keynote speaker Kofi Bonner, former NFL executive and CEO of Detroit commercial real estate company Bedrock, compared Portalnd’s situation to his home city’s predicament in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. 

Bonner called upon public and private entities to incorporate philanthropic organizations into their projects. Philanthropic funding can ensure neither the public nor the private-sector parties feel like they are taking on too much of the financial burden. 

“As we talk about building these cities into grand visions, we have to incorporate philanthropy. There is much to do coming out of the pandemic. Public, private and philanthropic partnership is the way to move forward,” said Bonner. “Sometimes the public sector asks the private sector to shoulder too much burden. The projects languish and there is collective hand-wringing.” 

“When private capital and public financing get together, that’s when the magic happens. It can be more bold, more visionary, and have more of an impact,” he said. 

It was a grand strategy for a moment that demanded one. With public, private and charitable organizations all required to complete the kind of projects that will revitalize the region into a 21st century economy, it will be important to select projects that fulfill the missions of all three sectors. 

What will also be important is the will and the drive to organize these projects, and bring them to fruition. 

The morning was capped off by Steve Callaway, elementary school principal and mayor for the City of Hillsboro, who compared the potential future of the region to two children’s books: The Little Red Hen and Stone Soup.

In both books the hero is trying to create a tasty meal, but no one wants to contribute. The Little Red Hen is unable to convince her fellow barnyard animals to help her bake a cake. In Stone Soup, every person in a small town ends up contributing a tiny bit to the meal, and the whole town gets fed. 

Time will tell which storybook will prove the more accurate comparison. But judging by how many in the ausinced announced a willingness to lace up their running shoes and gets started, there was a palpable will to go along with the way. 


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