Urban renewer


One year after he was appointed chair of the Portland Development Commission, Tom Kelly talks about PDC’s longevity, Neil Kelly’s comeback and his new role as Portlandia’s landlord.

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Unknown-1Tom Kelly wears many hats.  Chair of the Portland Development Commission. Owner, Neil Kelly Company.  Former convener: Oregon Solutions Western Juniper Alliance. Founding member, Oregon Business Association.

A couple of months ago, he added another feather to his cap: “I’m Portlandia’s landlord!”

I caught up with Kelly last week, one year after he was appointed chair of Portland’s development agency. We met in his office located on the second floor of the company’s North Alberta showroom. Until last year, his office was across the street, in a low-slung building now occupied by the Portlandia crew.  

Kelly, whose father was a PDC commissioner in the 1980s — “I’m the first second generation commissioner” —  recalled his surprise when Hales asked him to chair the development agency. “He said: ‘Let’s have coffee.’ It didn’t even cross my mind.”

Kelly took a couple of weeks to make a decision; among other things, he wanted to make sure his policy goals aligned with Hales’. “I’m one of the Portland progressives,” says Kelly, in characteristically guileless fashion.  “I care more for people who aren’t cared for than the big developers. Not that I don’t care about them.”

A champion of the under served, Kelly says languishing neighborhoods like East Portland get his enthusiasm. The agency is expected to sign off today on the sale of three parcels in the Lents neighborhood, one of which will be developed by Pearl District builder Williams and Dame.  “Lents is at a tipping point,” Kelly says.

He ticks off other PDC success stories, including closing a long-awaited deal with Zidell Yards and progress on the Post Office relocation, one of the biggest urban redevelopment sites in the country: “14 acres of prime real estate.” 

As chair, Kelly’s priority is the long-term financial stability of PDC, now funded through urban renewal dollars. Locally and nationally, urban renewal areas are falling out of favor, thanks to dollars they siphon from basic services.

To replace the URA revenue stream, PDC is looking into EB-5 visas, a program for immigrant investors who create new jobs or capital investment. New Market Tax credits are another option.

In a red-hot market, does Portland still need a development agency?

It’s a valid question, Kelly says. But the answer is yes. Development cycles are, well, cyclical, and there are plenty of under served areas — Cully, 82nd avenue —  in need of catalytic public dollars.

How’s business at Neil Kelly?

“It’s good, after years of not being good.” Remodeling is Neil Kelly’s bread and butter, accounting for more than half of the company’s revenue. Seven years after the housing market torpedoed the construction industry, Kelly is also feeling flush enough to start building a spec house, a 4,200 square-foot, $2 million home at the Tetherow Resort in Bend.

 “Central Oregon is booming,” he says.

Some divisions are lagging. Neil Kelly’s energy efficiency department has flattened out. During the recession, stimulus funds directed a steady stream of money to nonprofits like Clean Energy Works, which in turn contracted with companies like Neil Kelly. But much of federal money has dried up.

In 2013, Kelly diversified into solar installation with the acquisition of Mr. Sun Solar. The division recently hooked up  400 solar PV panels to the rooftop of the Best Western Inn at the Meadows in North Portland and is about to close a deal on a project Kelly calls one of the biggest private solar installations in the state.

But there is a cloud in that silver lining.

Federal tax credits for solar projects are set to expire in 2016.If they don’t get extended, Kelly’s business will take a hit — although the threat of expiration is also triggering a rush on installations.

Kelly is playing both sides of the fence, lobbying Sen. Ron Wyden to extend the credits while hyping the expiration date in his marketing materials. “We’re mercenary.”

A hard nosed business man with a soft spot for the underdog. Sounds like a cameo for a Portlandia episode. Kelly laughs. “I thought about asking. But not yet.”

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