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Posted: October 01, 2010

Cote’s Colorado: Weird is not always wonderful

Denver leaders get a taste of the best and worst of Portland, Ore.

Mike Cote

Residents of Portland, Ore., drive 20 percent less than their counterparts in other American cities, get around town on bikes and streetcars, and embrace an egalitarian ethic.
Oh, and they want to keep their city "weird." (Where have we heard that before?)

The 160 business and community leaders who took a crash course on the Pacific Northwest city in September got a taste of its successes and its challenges.

While addressing the delegates of the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation, Portland Mayor Sam Adams tried to sell Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper some streetcars - Portland not only became the first American city to bring them back, it now manufactures them. He touted the city's advanced manufacturing, cleantech, software and health-care sectors and its environmental bent.

"Through the lens of sustainability, Portland is definitely a living laboratory," Adams said during his address at The Nines hotel, which is owned by trip sponsor Sage Hospitality.
He also cited a quest for excellence that would have sounded on key at Nike's headquarters in nearby Beaverton, the final stop on the tour. "We have to be scrappy," Adams said. "Every single business in Portland has to seek to excel or you don't get a lot of love from the city."

Some business leaders in Portland said they weren't feeling the love. In January, Oregon voters approved two tax measures business leaders say will drive corporations from the state. One measure increased the income tax rate to 11 percent for households with taxable income more than $250,000; the other set higher minimum taxes for corporations and increased the tax rate on upper-level profits.
"It's a very, very blue state," said J

dy Peppler, state president for Qwest, who noted Oregon's strong union presence. "When you don't have a little balance in this regard, it makes it difficult to do business."

And the high number of business groups also makes it hard for business leaders to speak with a unified voice to legislators and the public, Peppler said during a discussion following the mayor's appearance.

Denver leaders who missed the trip could get a taste of Portland's appeal by taking a little jaunt to their local people's republic.

Much of what's good about Portland - a state university in the heart of town, a bustling nightlife, booming biking and running cultures, tech-savvy entrepreneurs and successful homegrown businesses - can be found in Boulder.

You can get your "Keep Boulder weird" bumper stickers at the Boulder Book Store. Like Portland, the city hasn't exactly been known as an easy entry for business. But Boulder - whose leaders once couldn't speak the word "development" without choking on it - recently began offering incentives to retain companies.

Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., logged a few years as president of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce. He noted Portland's deep-water port, its strong railroad connections and airport, and its young demographic, which attracts creative professionals. But similar to Boulder, Portland sometimes "pushes the market around a little more than the market will allow it."

"The big difference to me is Boulder is the brightest city in the country, and Portland is not," Clark said. "They're barely graduating about 50 to 60 percent of their kids. That is the soft underbelly, and it's exactly the same challenge that metropolitan Denver faces. It's this graduation rate around the 70s, where it needs to be around the 80s and 90s."

Maureen McDonald, executive director of the Denver Metro Leadership Foundation, said what she took away from the trip was the challenge cities face when they strive to include as many perspectives as possible in making decisions - and still get things done.

"I feel like they have learned to be more inclusive than most cities as they make decisions. That has both a positive and sometimes a negative spin," she said, noting metro Portland's urban growth boundary as an example of community consensus. "The negative is that process can trump product. The upside is people are deeply invested and are willing to play by the rules because they helped make them."

Nothing weird about that.
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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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