‘Portland is not invincible': City economy could be on ‘thin ice,’ chamber warns

Christopher O'Neil, Portland Community Chamber government liaison (BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Christopher O’Neil, Portland Community Chamber government liaison (BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett)

On Wednesday, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and his minimum wage advisory committee held a public hearing on plans to set a citywide minimum wage that’s higher than the state’s $7.25 per hour. You can read my coverage of that hearing by clicking here.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan at Wednesday night's public hearing on a citywide minimum wage. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan at Wednesday night’s public hearing on a citywide minimum wage. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Beyond the debate over baseline pay for tipped employees and the passionate calls for a minimum wage of $15 per hour — which I wrote about in my initial coverage of the event — another testimony at the meeting stuck out. The Portland Community Chamber of Commerce’s Christopher O’Neil, as part of an overall point cautioning Brennan not to add too many new costs and restrictions on the business community, gave just a few hints about what we might see when the chamber releases its highly anticipated annual economic scorecard for the city next month.

Said O’Neil, in part:

Portland is not invincible. Next month you will see some disappointing — and I dare say ‘troubling’ — numbers in the chamber’s economic scorecard. Several of our economic indicators — and these are indicators that we all agreed needed to be measured — will send a message of caution. Yes, Portland is hot in many ways. But there is some thin ice out there too.

To be fair, this wasn’t entirely a foreboding testimony. I’m just pulling out a few sentences that seemed ominous to me, but O’Neil also acknowledged that “rarely a week goes by when we are not reading in some national or global publication that we are the best this or the most darling that.”

economic scorecardIndeed, I typically mention those publication plaudits in this blog space, with the most recent such superlative noted here. Some of that gushing about how great Portland is has come from publications like Forbes and Business Insider, in fact.

I followed up with Chris to ask if he could give me any more insight into how Portland’s economic veneer might be getting chipped, realizing that there would be limits to what he could say, considering the next scorecard report won’t be publicly unveiled until Sept. 9.

As expected, he confirmed that he had to stay relatively tight-lipped about the particulars, but offered:

[R]est assured, they’re some of the most critical indicators if you look through the lens of the [economic development] and strategic plan. I can also say that there are some red flags across 10-, five-, and one-year trends.

This all started in the context of O’Neil expressing the chamber’s concern that a new minimum wage — combined with recent city ordinance changes establishing extra restrictions on shopping bags and polystyrene containers, among other measures — could have the cumulative effect of slowing or reversing the city’s business growth momentum.

The chamber’s annual economic scorecard uses dozens of economic indicators to evaluate whether the business group believes Portland’s economy is headed in the right direction.

Last year’s report found that while Portland was adding jobs, it was doing so at a slower rate than the national average, for instance. It also found that the city either lost jobs or added them slower than the U.S. rate in targeted industries such as information technology, biomedical sciences, and business and financial services.

Personal income growth was also lagging behind the national rate, according to last year’s report, as well as other scorecard criteria such as the value of city imports and exports, population growth, airline passenger counts and venture capital investment.

Of course, that same report also noted that the city was outpacing the nation or region in other categories, such as educational attainment, the unemployment rate, rental affordability (amazingly enough) and retail sales. And being that much of this data takes time for state and federal sources to compile and release, even though the report was presumably using as up-to-date figures as were available, a lot of the information used in the scorecard was two or more years old.

Having reported on recent recognition Portland has received in the technology market — the city was one of America’s five “under-the-radar tech hubs,” as well as one of techie.com’s 10 most “unexpected cities for high-tech innovation” and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s top 10 metropolitan areas for density of information/communications technology startups — I wonder if the needle has moved at all in terms of job growth in that industry. My colleagues and I have also written about higher traffic and other plaudits for the Portland International Jetport, so I wonder if that metric has turned around in the meantime.

We’ll have to wait and see.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

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