As business leaders and politicians contemplate solutions to Portland’s biggest problems, the city’s top elected official wants to focus on the positive.
“People should be proud of the work that the city of Portland is doing under withering circumstances to ensure the recovery of this city,” Mayor Ted Wheeler told OPB Monday morning.
Gov. Tina Kotek unveiled a list of recommendations Monday on how to rejuvenate Portland’s struggling downtown, including new tax relief policies, trash cleanup programs, and a ban on public drug consumption. The suggestions, informed by a Kotek-appointed task force, are meant to stimulate tourism, business investments, retail growth, and reignite Portlanders’ love of their downtown.
Wheeler supports the recommendations. But he wishes the package went a step further to heal the city’s reputation by condemning the high-powered and deep-pocketed campaigns that he said are actively working to sow distrust in Portland’s present and future.
Wheeler specifically pointed to the immense billboards erected in downtown Portland by an advocacy group called People for Portland. These billboards condemn the city’s crime and homelessness issues, placing the blame squarely on Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt and County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson. The billboards proclaim that the city is experiencing “record crime” with “murderers on the streets,” among other fearful accusations.
Wheeler, who is not running for reelection and has largely avoided the group’s critical gaze, said the campaign is wrongheaded for two reasons. First, Portland’s crime is on the decline. Second, he said that the billboards effectively disincentivize investment in the city from event organizers, businesses, tourists and prospective residents.
“We’re competing against other cities all around the country for jobs, for investments, for travel, for tourism,” Wheeler said. “We’re making it really, really easy for our competition when we have billboards that say, ‘We suck really badly here.’”
There’s no data that show a direct correlation between People for Portland’s advertisements and financial disinvestment in the city. But The Rose City’s reputation across the state has measurably wilted.
In 2021, polling firm DHM Research asked 500 people living across Oregon about their impression of Portland. Fifty percent of those polled said they had a negative impression of Portland, while 45% had a positive impression (5% stated they “didn’t know”). Those attitudes have since worsened. Asking the same question in 2023, DHM Research found that 62% of those polled now have a negative perception of Portland, with only 37% feeling positive about the city.
John Horvick, senior vice president for DHM Research, said that Portland comes up a lot when he’s conducting polls across the state.
“I hear frustration and finger pointing and worry about Portland threatening the health of the state, and I think a lot of that is influenced by what they’re learning from the media,” Horvick said, adding that Portland-based TV and radio stations reach households across Oregon.
“If People for Portland are able to get their message out through local media or advertising, those things matter to folks quite a bit,” he said.
The city’s tourism economy has been slow to rebound following the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent report released by Travel Portland, the nonprofit agency that promotes Portland as a tourist destination, found that 1.8 million people stayed in Portland hotels in 2022, compared to 2.5 million in 2019. And 2022 saw less than half the amount of days reserved for industry conventions in Portland than recorded in 2019.
People for Portland leaders reject the mayor’s assumption that their billboard campaigns hurt Portland’s reputation.
“Only a desperate politician would blame a billboard for the reality that exists right underneath it,” said Dan Lavey, People for Portland co-founder.
Lavey, the president of Gallatin Public Affairs and a longtime political strategist, noted that one of People for Portland’s largest billboards sits blocks away from Southwest 4th Avenue and Washington Street — an area known for a high concentration of fentanyl sales and overdoses.
“Failed politicians, leadership and policies created Portland’s problems, not a billboard,” he said.
Wheeler said he’s “repeatedly” tried to take his concerns directly to People for Portland, to no avail. He acknowledges the group’s concerns about Portland’s drug and homelessness crisis, but believes the campaign is driven more by profit than progress.
“At the end of the day, there are people who are getting paid a lot of money to put those messages up,” he said. “People are making money on the backs of the reputation of the city, and I think it’s disgusting.”
Kotek’s recommendations were announced at the annual “leadership summit” of the Oregon Business Plan, an event that drew hundreds of local business leaders whose financial stability rests on the city’s success. Wheeler said it’s ironic that many of those businesspeople are top donors to People for Portland. He’s asking those funders to think before doling out more campaign contributions.
“What I’m asking people to do is to not make an investment,” he said. “I’m asking them to save their nickels and dimes and not invest in negative press about the city that we’re all trying to support and help. Let’s not sell against ourselves.”