Halfway through his term Portland’s mayor reflects on the city’s rising skyline, an urban world, and the city’s greatest challenge.
Elected amid 2012’s postrecession hangover, Mayor Charlie Hales now presides over an urban boom that powers the nation’s second-fastest growing economy. (Only oil-rich North Dakota grew faster than Oregon over the past decade; the Portland metro area makes up three-quarters of the state’s economy.) What does success mean for a city long proud of its quirk and affordability? In an interview edited for concision and clarity, His Honor looks to the future:
What are you excited about for 2015?
We get to turn, after two years, from repair work to forward motion. Economically, the city is in a very good place. When I ran for office, the only tower cranes in the city were on public projects. Now, there are a dozen or more on the horizon, mostly for private projects. That’s a huge change—and it’s not a bubble, it’s real growth. People are coming to Portland because of quality of place and opportunity.
But do you sense any unease about that growth?
Absolutely. We’re attracting all this economic growth, but is that prosperity shared? The Washington Post did a story: “Why Portland grows its own Swiss chard and steals your college graduates.” OK, that’s fun. But instead of stealing other people’s college graduates, what about kids at David Douglas or Parkrose becoming software designers and staying in town? Economic development needs to be more than “Rah, rah, more growth, yay.” It needs to be about connecting our education system to that development.
How do we succeed as a city but avoid becoming, say, San Francisco?
The world is moving to cities—here, too. And that creates competition for very scarce real estate. Portland isn’t going to physically grow. Neither is San Francisco. Neither is Vancouver, BC. A lot of cities are in that situation. In five or 10 years, will young professionals even be able to buy houses here, let alone the family that moves here from Somalia or Schenectady and gets a solid job? We earmarked $20 million in funding for the Martin Luther King Boulevard corridor for affordable housing—nowhere near enough, but hopefully it leverages more.
Is there a ray of hope for our middle class?
To me, the interesting thing about our economic resurgence is that it’s not just the cool factor. It’s not just that everyone’s seen Portlandia. We make stuff here. We’re making whiskey and we’re making drone parts. We’re repairing navy ships and building boxcars. The shipyard’s doing great. We’re a blue-collar city as well as a white-collar city.
How can you, as mayor, harness that trend to make Portland more economically just?
I don’t have infinite power in any sense, let alone economically. But you point the way and you find partners to help you get there. And I think I’m pretty good at that, whether it’s Vigor Industries or the school district—can we work together? The private sector and public sector work pretty well together here. We have no excuse not to succeed.
Some say you’re sort of boring— Yay!
Well, maybe Portland isn’t as politically innovative as it once was. What’s the next big opportunity to do something new?
The next wave of innovation is to be as creative about people and opportunity as we have on place and environment. Are we going to share prosperity, or just import people to fuel it? That’s a struggle against broad national and international forces. You see the stories—400 people made the same as 155 million other people. There are no thundering hooves coming from Washington to help. I see no second Johnson administration on the horizon. It needs to happen on the local level. Can we be the national exception on opportunity, as we have been on quality of place? In Portland, we can get to yes.
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