Think Out Loud

Portland’s Central Eastside businesses call for action to reduce crime and vandalism

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Dec. 9, 2022 5:35 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Dec. 9

Portland city officials, downtown business owners and others have been engaged in a battle to bring down crime, vandalism and manage people camping in public spaces. That effort continues and has gotten a lot of attention. But business owners on the city’s Central Eastside say all those problems are rampant in their neighborhoods, too. And they’re pushing for action. Kim Malek is the CEO and co-founder of Salt & Straw and Clare Briglio is the executive director of the Central Eastside Industrial Council. They join us with details of what businesses have been experiencing and what they’re calling for.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today on Portland’s inner eastside. Business owners there are saying enough is enough. For more than a year, they’ve been dealing with fires and assaults and often unsafe working conditions for their employees. Now they are calling very publicly on local leaders to do more. Those leaders appear to be listening. Many of them took part in a public safety summit last week. I’m joined now by Kim Malek, the CEO of Salt & Straw, and Clare Briglio, the executive director of the Central Eastside Industrial Council and Central Eastside Together. It’s good to have both of you on Think Out Loud.

Kim Malek / Clare Briglio: [In unison] Thank you.

Miller: Kim Malek first. You have said that an RV fire that happened recently outside your production facility, was a kind of final straw. But it was not the first disruptive incident that you’ve had to deal with, or your employees have had to deal with. Can you just give us a sense for what you’ve experienced and what they have experienced over the last few years?

Malek: We have a production facility with about 50 folks who show up at all hours of the day to make ice cream. We produce and store all of our ice cream there on site. And especially over the past year, we’re just constantly dealing with pretty serious safety issues. It’s anything from having a bat wielded at them – it’s hard to even say out loud – to being followed with a knife, coming out at the end of their shift and their car being so damaged that they can’t even drive home. About a week before this RV fire, we actually had one of our team members held up at gunpoint as he was walking into work, and he had a gun pointed right in his face. The whole area was put on lockdown due to an active shooter and we had to get everybody home safely as soon as we could.

When this fire broke out, there were folks working at our kitchen. The RV had been there for about six months. They were documented by our team and others, examples of our illicit drugs and weapons. The mayor had stood in front of it two weeks prior and said that it was dangerous, and that he would be sure it was moved. And they’re there working and all of a sudden this huge explosion goes off right next to the place where we park and walk into the office. Someone could have died if they happened to be walking by at that time. And then everything went dark and this was at 3:00 AM. So it was very traumatic and scary. And just on the heels of this gun incident, we’ve hired armed guards. I’ve done everything I can to tell my team that we’re going to keep them safe, but I don’t know how I can stand before them and say that anymore. So I went to city hall and begged for help.

Miller: It’s fair to say that the fire, after all these other incidents, really was the straw that broke the camel’s back here. You’re saying if something doesn’t change, we may have to leave.

Malek: The way that I look at it is it’s not responsible of me to ask folks to come into work there every day and put their lives in danger. When I was meeting with city council, I asked them, ‘would you send your kids to work here?’ Because it’s scary, and I don’t know what else I can do to keep them safe. I mean, I’ve tried everything that I can think of, and so if I can’t get some help from the city and the county, I just don’t think it feels responsible to continue on this path.

Miller: Clare Briglio, can you give us a sense for broader concerns? You have heard from other members of your council?

Briglio: Yeah, thank you. Backing up to your point about safety concerns over the last two years or last year, I would say they started before then. Just bringing broader context to how long the problem has existed in the Central Eastside, safety and cleaning have been our primary focus as an enhanced service district, supporting safety services and cleaning services, on top of the City of Portland’s basic services. We all know that, unfortunately, right now the city’s basic services around safety are very limited, because of the number of law enforcement officers we have on the street. I would say also they deal with a negative public sentiment, and that’s not a criticism at all.

When I talked with Jason from Revant [Optics] and we talked with him before he went to speak at that last city council …

Miller: Just so I want to make sure, that that’s an optics company that’s right near Salt & Straw’s production facility? Am I right about that?

Briglio: Exactly. So Kim and Jason are technically neighbors, and the van was parked on Jason’s side. But both businesses were clearly impacted. When Jason went and spoke to city council, I visited that corner a couple days after, and we were approached by a man with a knife, not a butter knife, coming out of the van. We knew it was dangerous, we knew it had to leave.


I think that explosion was really the tipping point that gave some momentum in getting business owners to the business forum. And I had planned on having a listening session anyway for our enhanced service district. So Jason teamed up, and Kim as well, and that forum was very well attended. The mayor came unexpectedly and we were not expecting him. I was very encouraged by that. I think most of the business owners, speaking to Kim’s point, are concerned about their safety, about their employee safety and I’m also an employer. Our offices are in the Central Eastside and we have had - I just described myself getting approached with a knife - but we’ve also had safety concerns there.

This isn’t a problem that occurred overnight, obviously, and I think COVID created a larger magnifying glass over what the real problems in the Central Eastside are. And we are working now very closely and collaboratively with the city to align our services and programs to their desired intention to ban unsanctioned camping, to provide cleaner and safer streets. But this is the first step in a long process. I would say you can’t fix these systemic problems overnight. And there are certainly some of those that are preventing services to get to our employers quickly. We’re doing everything we can to remedy that.

Miller: Kim Malek, as you’ve both said, this didn’t just happen overnight. It’s not just the last year. How much support do you feel like you’ve received from city leaders or other local leaders throughout the last three or four years?

Malek: That’s a great question. I’ve been meeting with elected officials for the past three years, testifying in front of city council, meeting with them one-on-one, trying to figure out how we can work together to solve this problem. And I have to say I’ve received very little support and very minimal engagement. So standing in front of them, when this explosion happened, I just said, ‘I don’t believe you’re going to do anything. You haven’t done anything for the past three years. I’ve been working really hard to do everything I can, and you’re not showing up and meeting me halfway here.’

Miller: I’m curious about the ‘halfway,’ what that means. And I guess more specifically, obviously businesses pay various taxes and fees which go to various public services, so that’s one built-in way that any company in the city is already supporting city efforts.

Kim Malik first: do you think that business owners have any other specific responsibilities when it comes to responding to a humanitarian crisis on the streets?

Malek: I do. I think the business community has to show up and be part of figuring this out and being part of the conversation. Whether that’s determining how we can go above and beyond to contribute to the safety through lighting, extra security, signing up and paying for neighborhood and business council groups, and then participating in conversations and planning sessions with the elected officials. As well holding them accountable and shining a light on what we need. I think the business community definitely has to be part of that. And I welcome that.

Miller: Clare Briglio, can you give us a sense for what businesses have been doing? You mentioned before, the enhanced service district. So to what extent are business owners already spending money on some aspect of public safety?

Briglio: That’s a great question. So within our district it’s a 622-acre area. We have 1,400 employers and about 22,000 employees. So that kinda gives you the shape of the economic profile, briefly. But within that district we have around 700 individual ratepayers that pay a percent tax, based on their property value. So not every retailer, for example, will be aware of the fact that their landlord or whomever might be paying a tax that gives them access to extra services, enhanced services. And we’ll just talk about cleaning and safety for a moment. So I think I mentioned that, because we’re in a moment, I think where we need to clarify again what services are available in the area, how they’ve been successful, how we can tweak them to be better, how we can realign them with what the community really needs. And there is a percent that I would say, off the top of my head, we spend about 45% of our budget in the enhanced service district toward safety, and the rest toward cleaning. Just for a bit of comparison though, our district’s budget is seven times smaller than downtown Clean and Safe, even though it’s a much larger district.

I think as much as some employers pay, and they do – I mean I know, because I know I see the reports of our ratepayers – they do pay some do pay a considerable amount. It hasn’t been sufficient because there has been a gap in mental health resources provided by the county, for example, basic services provided by the city, and I think that’s what we’re doing right now, to reconvene and reconnect and work collaboratively towards those efforts. And so I’m really encouraged by that, but I can see as a business owner – and I actually am one myself, although I don’t have one located in Central Eastside – how frustrating it would be to feel like you’re paying into a system that’s not working for you. And I think there’s a level sitting there and expectation and clarifying the scope of our services, in the scope of where we want the city to meet us. And that goes back to, meet us in the middle of the road, meet us in what the city should and could be doing to protect its citizens and keep streets clean. You cannot have a vibrant economic entrepreneurial ecosystem without clean and safe streets.

Enhanced service districts and other states and other cities look very different than they do in the Central Eastside, and I say that from experience working in other states. We spend our money on social services and cleaning, and again safety, and I think that’s incredibly valid and important right now in this moment of crisis. I hope that we can grow out of that as the city becomes more robust in responding to basic services, and money is redirected towards mental health services, and safety services are less needed over time. And I hope we can use that money that [the] enhanced service district is receiving, and pour it back into the community for economic development development initiatives in place making. Because safety and cleaning are not the types of stress that we want our business owners to deal with every day, and unfortunately that has been the case for quite some time. I definitely understand the frustration.

Miller: Kim Malek, just briefly, what would it take for you to stay?

Malek: I will say that since this has come out, our elected officials from the city and county and state have all contacted me and showed up and we’re now meeting weekly with Clare and her team to put a plan in place. And for me, I need to ensure that we see the crime rates going down in our area, so that I can stand in front of my employees and tell them ‘yes this is a safe place to come every day.’ An example is: we’re working with Clare and her team to have one point of contact, so that all of us can report instances, and they can work with the city to create a cohesive plan to address them. So super important to be able to reach someone when there’s a problem. We showed up Monday and under our loading dock was illicit drugs, needles, super unsafe, and to be able to call someone and get that taken care of quickly is really important. And then to know that we have that direct line, we’re seeing the crime rates go down, and that the city and county are working together, which I just do not think has been happening. We want the folks who are on our streets to be treated in a humane way, and for our employees to be safe and I think we can do both.

Miller: Kim Malek and Clare Briglio, thanks very much.

Guests: Thank you.

Miller: Kim Malek is CEO and co-founder of Salt & Straw. Clare Briglio is the executive director of the Central Eastside Industrial Council and the Central Eastside Together organization.

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