A major task force assembled by Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek is expected to reveal on Monday its recommendations for how to solve downtown Portland’s biggest problems.
The Portland Central City Task Force has been discussing how to address a range of issues from homelessness and crime to taxation since its inception in August. Members include elected officials along with business and community leaders, and is co-chaired by Kotek and Dan McMillan, CEO of The Standard insurance company which maintains one of the largest office buildings in central Portland.
“It’s no secret that downtown Portland has faced an onslaught of challenges in recent years that have tarnished some of the characteristics that people love about Oregon’s largest city,” Kotek said in an August statement announcing the task force. “Growing pains turned into crises, exacerbated by a global pandemic, and now concerns about Portland have become a statewide economic issue.”
Many economists have long considered city centers as a bellwether for the overall economic health of a community. In 2020 pandemic closures threatened the health of downtowns as office workers set up shop at home, gatherings like concerts were no longer safe to attend, and shoppers spent money online instead of patronizing downtown businesses.
In Portland, office vacancy rates have yet to rebound, and remain twice as high as the historic average in the downtown corridor, according to an analysis from the Portland Metro Chamber using data from commercial property firm CoStar. The Chamber has been tracking foot traffic as well, which has been slow to return.
But perhaps the most pressing concerns facing the city — problems the pandemic only made worse – are Portland’s homelessness, mental health and addiction crises. Downtown Portland is especially seeing the impacts of the city’s lack of affordable housing paired with inadequate resources to address mental health and drug addiction.
Addressing addiction crisis is No. 1 issue, chamber says
Portland Metro Chamber President and CEO Andrew Hoan is one of several business representatives on the central city task force. He said Portland’s downtown business community is concerned with trash management along with high taxes and slow processing times for new business and development permits.
But Hoan said the business community’s number one issue is addressing the drug use and addiction crisis.
“What we have here is this toxic mixture on the street of drugs that truly are victimizing people,” Hoan said. “They’re unable to have normalized relationships with people, and that is impacting the experience we see. What people are saying to me is that drugs have altered the experience of downtown to the point where employers and customers are saying, ‘how can we accept this state?’”
The task force surveyed 9,000 people, most of whom lived in or near the central Portland region. The top two priorities among respondents were to reduce homelessness and address mental health.
Hoan said prior to 2020, people — including his family — were moving to Portland for the quality of life. But he said the compounding homelessness, addiction and mental health crisis downtown have hurt the city’s reputation.
“It shouldn’t happen in any city, any neighborhood,” he said, “and it certainly should not be in the place where millions of people come every month to interact with each other, to eat, to drink, to celebrate, to do business, to funnel the energy into the economy.”
Hoan is optimistic that the task force’s release of recommendations on Monday will match the needs of the business community — although he doesn’t expect the reveal will shock anyone who has been following the health of downtown.
“The task force can’t just wave a magic wand,” Hoan said. “They would’ve already done it if it was easy. There’s no silver bullet, there’s no one path to take.”
In addition to Hoan, the task force includes other leaders in downtown’s business community. Among them are representatives from the Port of Portland, the Black Business Association of Oregon, the Society Hotel in Old Town and Mother’s Bistro.
The Portland City Central Task Force is expected to present its recommendations on Monday, Dec. 11, at the Moda Center during the Oregon Business Plan Leadership Summit.