Portland is falling apart

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By John Jackson

Originally featured in the Oregon Transformation Newsletter.

I am not sure if Mayor Wheeler is sleeping while his apartment is burning. I ask myself as I look around the disaster of a city that used to be Portland: Is the mayor leading under the influence of political correctness? Has he been to Chinatown lately? Looked under the overpasses? Talked to city planners, PBOT or the permit offices? Visited local businesses?

Over the past few years (probably longer) small businesses have suffered a tremendous blow. The wheels are falling off the bus while it barrels toward the Willamette. I am talking about pre-COVID and pre-Black Lives Matter. COVID-19 exposed and illuminated some of the cracks in the city’s policies as it concerns small businesses. As a minority-owned business operator in Portland, I find it extremely painful and punitive to conduct business in the city.

I would say that some of the coolness and appeal of life in Portland are the beautiful vistas, liberating environment for expression, and awesome dining and entertainment opportunities. These are some of the reasons people are moving to Portland. However, Portland is quickly becoming one of the most expensive cities to live. Currently, housing is indexing at 180% of the national average. As a business owner, I wonder if we are getting our money’s worth from the leadership of the city. I believe the tide is turning and popular opinion is waning. There may be an exodus coming unless positive change happens first. My story is simple and may be one of many just like it.

In May 2019, I signed a lease to open a Portland location. I was really looking forward to opening a new style of restaurant in such a foodie town. I worked years to develop a concept and style of restaurant that could be a national franchise. Now, finally I would be in a top 20 market and a highly competitive food town. After months of searching, I found a promising location in downtown. I was filled with the excitement of finally opening up in Portland – Portland! Heroes Café had finally made it to the Promised Land.

Get ready … STOP.

It took 16 months to get issued a building permit. The bureaucracy and red tape was overwhelming for a relatively small project. Before I opened, I was paying rent for eight months. I have known developers building 20-story buildings in Portland that have navigated the permit process in half the time. This is the rub and my first observation that Mayor Wheeler is asleep at the wheel. Major developers get concierge permit service by paying a large sum of money to the city, which on the surface is not a totally bad thing. When you look deeper it is systemic of a core issue.

I believe the city of Portland has an arrogant perspective that it is an honor to be allowed to conduct business in the city limits. Small businesses are not a priority and fall through the cracks. It is expensive and time consuming to build in Portland. The same project in Beaverton would have taken one day to get the permit. My architect said he could have gotten an “over-the-counter permit” in one day at a fraction of the cost in Beaverton.

So be it. I wanted to be in Portland, not Beaverton. So, after countless meetings at the permit office and endless requirements, red tape and fees, I got the final construction permit in July 2020. We opened in September to more of the realty of Portland.

During construction we had our fair share of problems. Broken windows, homeless people sleeping in the doorways, mentally ill people on the jobsite, and more. However, the reality of the homeless situation did not hit until we opened the doors.

As I looked around, it became clear that the city’s response to the homeless issue was lacking. COVID-19 policies and the continuous protesting revealed an underlying challenge for downtown businesses. With the closing of retail, offices, schools, parks and most other social places, what remained was the transient population. The governor and mayor enforced strict policies for social distancing on businesses, but nearly no restrictions on the homeless.

I watched as shantytowns and settlements on the sidewalks went up throughout the city. No permits required, no fees, no fines, and lawlessness. These folks live in the park and on the sidewalks all around my business. In reflecting on the past months and frustration with all of the requirements placed on my business, I ask myself the following: Why was I required to apply for a land use permit, which delayed my permits and construction and cost me about $50,000 in fees and additional rent? The permit was simply to upgrade an existing exhaust fan on the back of the building facing the parking lot.

But anyone can set up a campsite or shanty village in the park or sidewalk and live there forever. To the world, Portland is a cool, hip and socially safe and accepting city. That extends directly to our transient and homeless population. As a business owner, it becomes very difficult to maintain a business when the homeless have more rights than anyone. Portland has encouraged a lifestyle of homelessness with free needles, drugs, food, and a hands-off policy of policing.

What businesses need is a mayor and city counsel to determine a real strategy for managing the homeless, transient and mentally ill citizens of Portland. Just the other day, in front of my restaurant, a young lady climbed on top of a police car and stripped herself naked. The officers displayed restraint (maybe because of the show) and eventually apprehended the lady. Continually, our customers are exposed to fighting, yelling and panhandling as they sit outside trying to enjoy a meal. The police are hamstrung, because the city of Portland ignores the ever-growing homeless population.

On a different note, the city leadership decides to punish large companies that do business with small business. Most recently, Portland decided to show delivery companies, like Grubhub, that you can’t mess with Portland’s small businesses. A possibly well intentioned cap of 10% on delivery fees was imposed on delivery companies. At the same time, the City of Portland extracts city fees of $2 per delivery. This is just another example of how you should be honored to have access to Portland consumers.

Finally, businesses have to charge increasingly higher prices because of the cost of labor. Oregon has the second highest minimum wage in the country. Only second to Washington, D.C.

Someone needs to grab the wheel and point the Portland city bus in the right direction. We need a business-friendly city that supports new business. There will always be homelessness and mental illness. Businesses need a homeless strategy that works. Businesses need leadership in city hall with a new attitude: What can the city of Portland do for business, NOT what can business do for the city? As fees, taxes and red tape increase, I believe Portland is on track to derail in the near future. There are no easy answers; however, a stronger mayor would help. Maybe the citizens of Portland should petition and get on the ballot a referendum for a strong mayor to take control and lead this city into the future.

This article provided by Oregon Transformation Newsletter.