Minimum wage, national chains and the next mayor: What a survey of local business owners tells us about Portland

A sampling of the responses to a recent survey of locally owned Portland businesses. (Courtesy of Portland Buy Local)

A sampling of the responses to a recent survey of locally owned Portland businesses. (Courtesy of Portland Buy Local)

Portland Buy Local, an collaborative organization made up of locally owned Portland businesses, recently surveyed its members to gauge sentiment in that community on a range of topics. And the results, released today, are very interesting.

One hundred and three businesses took the survey, more than half of which were retail or restaurant/hospitality businesses.

Here’s what the responses tell us:

Most local business owners support a higher minimum wage, and pay more than that anyway

The Portland City Council has famously approved Mayor Michael Brennan’s plan to implement a $10.10 per hour minimum wage in the city starting on Jan. 1.

As you can see from the pie charts above, about 27 percent of the business owners who responded said they pay their employees a starting wage of less than that, while about 43 percent said they already pay even their new employees more than $10.10 per hour.

(Another 17.6 percent reported that they don’t have any employees, while nearly 10 percent went with the “other” option.)

The survey also found that about two-thirds of local business owners — 66 percent — either “strongly” or “somewhat” support the mayor’s minimum wage plan, which calls for a step increase to $10.68 per hour in 2017 and future hikes tied to increases in the cost of living.

That plan was determined to be favorable to one proposed by the city’s Green Independent Party in a citywide referendum, which would put the Portland minimum wage at $15 per hour. The $15-per-hour wage was “strongly” or “somewhat” opposed by almost the same percentage of respondents — 63 percent.

The most popular minimum wage proposal among the local business owners was one to increase the statewide minimum wage, which is $7.50 per hour now, to $9 in 2017. That plan — which would feature yearly increases of $1 per hour until 2020, then tie future hikes to the cost of living — was supported by 68.7 percent of the respondents.

Another 19 percent were neutral on it, while just 12 percent were opposed.

The survey didn’t show unanimous support for higher minimum wages, though, of course. The survey allowed respondents to write in comments about the various issues, and many organization members took advantage of the forum to argue that the best ways to drive up wages are to train more skilled workers and help create more high-paying jobs, not to mandate that even low-skilled positions pay more.

In another part of the survey, respondents were asked if they plan to leave Portland within the next five years. A tiny minority (6 percent) said they do, while about a third (33 percent) reported that they’re not sure. Of those who said they plan to move or aren’t sure, 36 percent blame the increased cost of payroll brought about by the forced minimum wage hike for their uncertainty.

The rising cost of rent is a bigger threat to local businesses

(Courtesy of Portland Buy Local)

(Courtesy of Portland Buy Local)

The issue of gentrification and rising rent costs is something my colleagues at the BDN and I dove into last year with some greater detail in the award-winning multimedia piece “Crossroads.”

Definitely check that out if you haven’t yet, because it gets to the heart of this issue better than I’d be able to in a brief blog post.

But in a nutshell, as Portland’s increasingly famous high quality of life attracts wealthy retirees and others, high-end businesses follow and begin to drive rent prices up beyond many pre-existing businesses’ abilities to pay.

In their responses to the recent survey, 86 percent of local business owners reported some kind of rent increase within the past three years, with about 33 percent saying their rent has gone up by more than 5 percent. And around 63 percent say rent increases pose a “substantial” or “moderate” challenge to their business.

While the minimum wage hike was seen as a reason to potentially leave Portland for 36 percent of those who may do so in the next five years, the rising rent was cited as an even bigger problem.

Forty-six percent of respondents who plan to leave Portland or are unsure if they’ll be leaving Portland said the skyrocketing rent costs are to blame.

Local business owners want the city to limit how many chains can move in

(Courtesy of Portland Buy Local)

(Courtesy of Portland Buy Local)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the local business owners who responded to the survey feel that national chains threaten their livelihood and hope the city places limits on how many of the chains can move into town.

As you can see in the charts above, more than half said national chain businesses — which are most often retailers or restaurants — have a negative impact on their local businesses.

In addition to the hypothetical ordinance shown in the second chart above, the survey asked respondents about a range of other possible ordinances aimed at restricting the prevalence of national chains in the city, and all of those possibilities were popular.

Other hypothetical measures included:

  • An ordinance to limit the amount of chains throughout Portland, such as capping the percentage of chains at 20 percent of all restaurants and retailers (57 percent support)
  • A program providing incentives, such as tax breaks for faster permitting, for developers who target local businesses for their properties (72 percent support)
  • A system through which local businesses could more easily pool money to buy buildings cooperatively (81 percent)

The only proposal that garnered almost no support among respondents was leaving things the way they are, with no plan to address the increase of chains in the city. Just 7 percent said they’re OK with that, while 52 percent said they’re not and 41 percent said they’re not sure.

There’s no real consensus on what steps the next mayor should take

The Portland Buy Local survey stopped short of asking local business owners to pick their favorite candidates for mayor — incumbent Brennan looks to be in the fight of his life against hard-charging challenger Ethan Strimling, with Green Tom MacMillan also in the running.

The survey did, however, ask for comments on what the mayor and City Council should be doing to help local businesses thrive, and the responses were wide-ranging and varied.

A few reiterated points made in previous sections of the survey, calling for the mayor and councilors to do more to limit the spread of national chains, to find some way to control rent increases and to back off their minimum wage plans.

Others hammered home points about the scarcity of available and inexpensive parking in the downtown, which can be a deterrent to customers and employees alike.

One respondent urged city officials to better regulate sidewalk craft vendors, harkening back to a previous legal debate the city ultimately decided against wading into, while another wanted a crackdown on loiterers and litterers.

The general, overarching takeaway is that local businesses feel Portland’s charm — that atmosphere that seems to make tourists and shoppers want to come here — should be preserved.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.