Portland: Dusting off the welcome mat

The myth is that Portland is a very livable but rainy city whose people don't particularly like outsiders.

This city, nestled against hills on the west and looking north and east to explosive Mt. St. Helens and graceful Mt. Hood, is livable . . . and sometimes cloudy and wet. But it is merely rumor that Oregonians want to close the borders. Most actually like newcomers - as long as they respect the natural environment and slow-paced Oregon way of life.

In fact, many Portlanders are bent on attracting new people, business, and industry as the city struggles with a severe statewide recession brought on by a generally weak economy, high interest rates, and a devastated lumber industry.

Because of its diverse economy, Portland has not been hurt as badly as the rest of the state. But it has had to tighten its belt. And local unemployment, over 9 percent, is higher than the national rate.

A woman with two social-work jobs tells of going to apply for a third part-time job as a dishwasher. She found over 200 people, young and middle-aged, waiting for applications.

Portland isn't quite sure how to weather a recession. The ache is obvious when one hears about failed businesses and an overabundance of applicants for menial jobs.

But there does seem to be a ''can do'' attitude and a strong work ethic inherited from Portland's New England settlers.

''People are just going to have to work harder,'' a college instructor comments.

''Portland has a diverse economy that is affected by the timber industry,'' says Mayor Francis J. Ivancie. ''But Portland as a city has more chemistry of action (than the rest of the state).''

Economist Kevin R. Kelly, senior vice-president at US Bancorp in Portland, foresees a gradual turnaround.

The Port of Portland is doing quite well. Ground for a coal shipping area was broken recently, and the port's dry docks are mostly full. He says the port will be a plus should Japan ever step up imports of foodstuffs from the United States.

Tourism, the state's No. 3 industry after lumber and agriculture, is also strong. The City of Roses, as Portland is called, can make for a business or pleasure trip low in cost and varied in activities.

Manufacturing is weak, except for electronics. But Donald D. Parker, dean of Portland State University's school of business administration, points out that there have been some real success stories in the area despite the torpid economy. Both Nike (formerly Blue Ribbon Sports), maker of athletic shoes, and Floating Point Systems, a high-tech firm, have been expanding.

Clothing manufacturers, such as White Stag, Jantzen, and Pendleton, are doing ''all right,'' Mr. Parker adds. And though residential construction is in a terrible slump, heavy construction is doing well. Cranes are a part of the skyline as office complexes go up, the city's stadium is revamped, and finishing touches are put on the controversial public service building, a $22.4 million post-modern structure designed by architect Michael Graves. The colorful, ornamented structure is a direct rejection of the modern glass box skyscraper.

''We've just been in the lower part (of the recession) longer than we anticipated,'' Dean Parker says. ''Sometime before the end of the year we should see the light.''

Ray M. Broughton, vice-president and economist at First Interstate Bank, calls interest rates he key to a turnaround.

''Unless housing picks up, the economy here will drag,'' he says. But he says that will probably happen within the year. And when it does, ''Housing will be built upon demand,'' rather than on speculation. He predicts a permanent loss of about 8,000 jobs in the lumber industry.

Meanwhile, belt-tightening continues. Some businesses are furloughing employees, and one architectural firm has gone to a four-day workweek. Mike Anderson, business representative of Plumbers Union Local 51, says union members' work is down 40 percent. They recently took a pay cut for residential work to get more of them back on the job.

Some new heavy construction work is coming to the area will also create jobs, he adds, but tough times still lie ahead.

''Some of our workers are looking in other fields temporarily, but there is not much there. A certain number are taking early retirement.''

Mayor Ivancie plays down the economic problems, though he admits Portland's unemployment is ''troublesome.

Despite the recession, most Portlanders insist that Oregon is a good place to live and work. ''Quality of life'' is a pet phrase tossed around by everyone from the mayor to the man and woman on the attractive and functional downtown pedestrian malls. And Portlanders are finding the need to sell their city becoming more urgent as they reexamine their state's dependence on the lumber industry and its ''antibusiness attitude,'' as some have called it.

''We had a lot of development (in the 1970s) in spite of ourselves,'' says Bancorp's Kelly. Now, he says, the city is planning a professional campaign to entice business.

There are still plenty of people who say that strict environmental laws and land-use planning are very necessary. But now most of the movers and shakers seem to have crossed the line--this new breed eschews the previous attitude of restricted development and decries lengthy zoning procedures and a ''prohibitive'' tax structure.

''When I went away to graduate school, Tom McCall was venerated,'' says one young banker, referring to the progressive and outspoken former governor who told people they were welcome to visit Oregon, as long as they settled elsewhere. ''Now he's not.''

Still, Oregonians take pride in their clean rivers and air, virtually litter-free streets, and close-by wilderness areas. Much of the old environmentalist ethic remains. Industry is welcome, but, like many other cities , Portland seeks ''clean'' high-tech firms rather than polluting factories.

One thorn in the side of Portland's reputation as a livable city is crime. Police Chief Ron Still is frank in his assessment. ''We have a crisis,'' he says. Both major crime and ''street disorders'' have soared in Portland, which is ranked fourth in the nation in reports of major crimes per capita.

Chief Still says part of the problem is a lack of jail space throughout the state. The majority of prisoners in the county jail are felons, since the state penitentiary is full.

Criminals arrested and convicted for ''less violent'' crimes like robbery may not be sent to jail until a second or third conviction, and Portand's rearrest is very high.

Nonetheless, Portland's attractions are many. It is a beautiful and human-scale city. Plentiful parks include Forest Park, which is the largest forest area (as distinct from park area) within a US city's limits.

Portlanders love boating and fishing on the nearby Columbia and Willamette Rivers, hiking and skiing in the Cascade Mountains, and beachcombing on the Oregon coast.

''I grew up here. That's why I stayed,'' Kelly says. He tells of a recent business lunch with a New Yorker whose travel had taken him to Seattle and Portland. When Kelly began to speak of his family, the New Yorker laughed.

''He said in the last two days, four different people had spoken about their families,'' Kelly says. ''In six years in New York, no one had ever mentioned them.''

Portland has been growing up culturally. The Oregon Symphony Orchestra, the Portland Civic Theater, the Portland Art Museum, and the Oregon Historical Society have been available for years. Now there are also new professional theater companies, dance troupes, the Portland Visual Arts Cooperative, a music festival at Reed College, and a slew of art galleries. Voters have approved a ballot measure for a new $20 million performing-arts center.

Portlanders attribute some of this boom to the influx of newcomers in the 1970s. ''These people have come in and demanded more, and have also gotten involved,'' says Errol Rich of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra.

Unfortunately, the budget squeeze has hurt groups just as they were expanding , says Catherine Windus-Martin, the Oregon Symphony's marketing director.''

The crunch of the economy is canceling out those gains,'' she says. An example is the cancellation of this year's Artquake, a five-year-old arts and music festival.

And some people feel Portland is a small town when it comes to the arts. A local composer points out that he often has to take his work elsewhere because local institutions prefer more traditional music.

But David P.C. Chang, a transplant from New York City, is impressed with what his new state has to offer.

''I'm looking forward to taking advantage of the delights and pleasures of this state,'' he says, adding that he hopes to go steelhead fishing soon.

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