The newly rebranded chamber of commerce plans to offer microloans and increased advocacy opportunities for small-business owners.
In June the Portland Business Alliance unveiled a “new” name — more on that in a moment at its annual meeting, attended by 500 stakeholders in downtown Portland. The organization will retain Portland Business Alliance as the name of its umbrella organization, which includes three affiliated organizations: the Portland Metro Chamber, Downtown Portland Clean & Safe, and Partners in Diversity, under its Charitable Institute. Portland Metro Chamber is actually what the organization was called when it was founded in 1870.
Oregon Business spoke with president and CEO Andrew Hoan about that rebrand, as well as the three-year strategic plan released at the June meeting. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
So first, I wanted to talk about the name change — which sounds like it’s actually more of a reversion to an old name.
The history of it is a really interesting one. No one knows the exact details, but in the late ’90s, there was the Regional Chamber of Commerce and then there was the Association of Portland Progress, and they decided to bring the two entities together. They created this name, the Portland Business Alliance, which reflected the sense that neither of these are going to be the leading institutions — they’re just an alliance of business.
But in doing so, the concept of the chamber — which is what one of our corporations is — was lost. For 20-plus years, every time myself or my predecessor or anybody on staff introduced themselves, they had to say, with the Portland Business Alliance, “greater Portland’s Chamber of Commerce.” If you have to explain what you are, then there’s a need and an impetus to make a course correction.
So we brought forward the Portland Metro Chamber, to just reflect what we are and what we do at the 501(c)(6) membership-based advocacy organization, so that we proudly wear it.
But the PBA name isn’t completely going away. Is that right?
When we talk about the collective impact of the Portland Metro Chamber, downtown Portland Clean & Safe, and our Charitable Institute, which is where our Partners in Diversity resides as an affiliate program, that is the alliance. We’re able to talk about our collective impact and the enterprise-wide abilities for us to serve those that support our organization — that’s the alliance.
But when we show up and we testify, and we advance good policy, and we connect members together, that’s the Portland Metro Chamber. So we just strengthened that brand, brought it forward and kept the Alliance [name] when talking about the collective impact of the three corporations.
On the strategic plan, one of the things that jumped out at me had to do with growing small-business membership and support for smaller businesses. “Small business” can actually refer to lots of different sizes of businesses. So what are you thinking of when you think of a small business?
For the purposes of what the board staff and all of our stakeholders wanted, an emphasis on growing [membership among] that street-level, brick-and-mortar retail presents the thing that gives Portland its quintessential vibe. We know that [small retailers are] not going to be able to show up at every meeting; we know that they’re not going to be coming out and testifying or coming to mixers. But they want to be engaged. They want to be informed and they want to find ways to activate and support their communities.
We’ve established a membership rate for $100 for any business that defines [itself as] retail or microenterprise as well, to be able to join and just get on the list, start getting the information, find out what’s happening, discover ways to connect with other members. The emphasis is to just grow that base of memberships so that we can feel that we’re serving the things that really give us our general Portland vibe — who doesn’t love our restaurants or retail scene? So there’s a big emphasis on that, and then complementing that by growing out the services that we offer.
The strategic plan also mentions microlending. Is that something you’ve done in the past?
I was the former head of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce in Brooklyn, New York, and our three affiliate organizations were called Brooklyn Alliance Capital. I was part of establishing what’s known as a community development financial institution, or CDFI, that focused on lending to immigrant-based businesses. So yes, I have personally actually created and established a CDFI that is focused on microlending; the amount of loans that were made to those companies were anywhere between $5,000 and $25,000, and it still thrives to this day. Chambers of commerce across the country — this is what they do. They find innovative ways to serve businesses and grow the economy. And increasingly, chambers all over the country — especially large metropolitan chambers — bring a huge element of direct service. Microlending is one of them. Health care, workforce, those are things that chambers of commerce all over the country traditionally do.
You’ve also mentioned increasing opportunities for advocacy for what you call average small businesses. Again, I assume you’re talking about kind of smaller retailers, smaller restaurants. Can you talk more about what you hope to see there?
Large business organizations like ours can show up and deliver really sound and good policy, and have thoughtful testimony and policy positions. But when a small business shows up, people pay attention — because they know it was so important that they locked the door to their store and took the time out of their day to express their feelings and what they want to see for the betterment of Portland.
I think effective business advocacy is predicated on the needs of small businesses. And surprisingly — or, I should say, unsurprisingly — small-business and big-business needs, they’re pretty equal. What do they want to see? They want to see community safety, they want to see our unsheltered crisis mitigated, they want to see the impacts of the drug epidemic on our street be resolved and to care for those individuals who suffer from addiction. We all share common interests here. It’s about making sure the voices of the most impacted who are on the street, retail storefront businesses, have a place to plug in. And we want to be a vehicle to help amplify that messaging and give them a platform that is easy to access. That’s so onerous to figure out: how to testify, where do I have to go? It’s important to give them the tools to be successful advocates for themselves and for the business community.
The strategic plan also mentions increasing housing production. What do you think we need to do right now to increase housing production?
When you ask, “What’s the golden ticket?” there is none. There are lots of avenues that we need to pursue. One of them has been the immovable object for decades, and that is permitting reform at the city level. We’re extremely encouraged about the process and the progress that’s been happening about consolidating various permitting, staff and bureau at the city level. And matching that with the public investment that we want to see for housing, especially the affordable level with the City of Portland housing bond, the Metro bond, and seeing those totally executed in combination with the new investments from the state. When we say big projects and big economic development drivers, we’re thinking housing has to be a part of every single one of those equations, because we need, obviously, the small-scale stuff that’s appropriate for neighborhoods, but we need the big ones to be able to move the housing production needle at all bandwidths, especially here in our core.
Our downtown is going to be facing high vacancy rates for some time ahead. But we know that a future and a better, more vibrant downtown and a better commercial office market will include significant development of housing in the core, because who doesn’t want to wake up and walk two blocks to their office environment and then go out to some of our incredible cultural establishments? It’s not for everybody live in the downtown, but there are definitely people who, if provided the opportunity and access to housing in our core, would want to live in downtown, in the central city. So it’s also about reimagining the center city, so there’s not just one kind of use, but that it’s a vibrant live-work community.
The strategic plan also talks about charter reform. What do you want to see in terms of next steps?
The implementation of the voter-approved measure has got to happen, especially on the unified form of government. When you look at the basic services that the city provides, it’s the fact that we really just had a discordant and — let’s call it what it is — dysfunctional bureaucracy. We need a healthy bureaucracy. We need our civil servants to feel and understand that there is a system, they’re part of that system, they’re part of our recovery, and that there are clear lines of authority and delivery. Right now, I believe that the system that’s being put in place as we speak today is going to deliver on better, more effective services. It’s something that the business community has been calling for for decades.
Now, we have concerns, of course, about the system of voting that we just enacted. There is no comparison anywhere else that we can find. So we also want to make sure that democracy and its integrity here in our system are secure, and that people do have the ability to exercise their right to vote. So making sure that the new system of voting is implemented effectively is also really, really important, because the complexity of having the city’s method of ranked-choice voting, next to the county’s method of ranked-choice voting, next to Metro’s not-ranked-choice voting, next to what will be the state’s future version of ranked-choice voting could be a little complex. It’s important that voters feel that they are encouraged, not discouraged, from this complexity, and that we’re able to pull off a significant overhaul in our voting system.