Framing 2021 as “the year of recovery,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler detailed his vision on Friday for the city’s future during the next phase of the pandemic as many residents begin to emerge from a year-long quarantine and local businesses prepare to reopen this spring.
“I’m trying to move this community through the crisis: the global pandemic, the homeless crisis, the concerns people justifiably have around their own safety … and the reality that we have a livability problem in a city that has historically been seen as one of the most livable cities on this planet,” Wheeler said in his annual State of the City address on Friday.
“My job right here and now is to focus relentlessly on moving us through the crisis,” Wheeler said.
While the mayor’s remarks were focused on getting Portland through the recovery period, the speech was short on fresh announcements of how to rebuild. The most notable announcement was of a citywide clean-up initiative called “Clean and Green,” which Wheeler said would be led by former mayor Sam Adams, who joined the mayor’s office earlier this year. The initiative would be fueled, in part, by a $100,000 donation by Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle.
Wheeler also put out a call Friday for the public to get involved in the city’s recovery effort, promising “far more inclusion and activation of the public” in the coming months. On multiple occasions during the event, he asked participants to join the effort by signing up for his newsletter.
The hour-and-a-half-long virtual event was hosted by the City Club and moderated by Western States Center Executive Director Eric Ward, who questioned the mayor on his top three priorities for his second term: homelessness, livability, and community safety.
Over the last year, Portland has been home to massive racial justice protests and loud calls for increased oversight of the police bureau. Ward asked Wheeler, who is also the police commissioner, how to change the perception that law enforcement was not adhering to its stated mission to protect and serve. Wheeler answered by first praising police officers, before launching into a critique of the institution, which he called “one of the most entrenched bureaucracies” he’s confronted after decades in the public sector.
“It is very resistant to change,” he said. “It all too often takes the call to change personally, as an attack on the institution.”
The mayor was also asked about some of the livability issues that have become increasingly apparent for Portlanders in recent months. Homeless campsites have become a more permanent part of the cityscape as the city has reduced the number of sweeps of encampments during the pandemic due to public health restrictions. Graffiti and vandalism are reportedly on the rise. The Oregonian/OregonLive published a report Friday about the city’s worsening handle on garbage that is sprawled out across the city.
Some residents blame these issues for a decline in foot traffic in commercial areas. Asked by Ward if he believed that downtown’s best days are behind the city, as has been suggested recently in the national press, Wheeler flatly rejected the notion.
“No that’s a load of… that’s not true Eric,” said Wheeler, pointing to the recent reopening of the Apple Store and Pioneer Place, and the grand opening of “the highest end of high-end stores” Gucci.
The mayor also underscored that he wanted to see the money from the homeless services measure Portland-area voters approved last May go toward reducing chronic homelessness. Down the road, Multnomah County officials say they expect the measure to bring in $100 million each year. This year, with the program still in its infancy and the pandemic depressing the local economy, officials estimate the tax will bring in $52 million to Multnomah County.
Wheeler said he did not have a timeline for when the city would start seeing results from the various recovery initiatives.
“Now whether that will happen in 30 or 60 or 90 days, I can’t say. The reality is it took us a long time to get to where we are today. And the reality is it’s going to take time.” he said. “And I’m committed to sticking around to do that.”