Jim Mark, CEO of Portland real estate company Melvin Mark, contacted Gov. Kate Brown’s office and local officials last summer as he grew increasingly alarmed about the state of downtown.
He expressed his support for peaceful protests for racial justice, but condemned the groups of people who had used the demonstrations as a cover for destruction and vandalism against downtown businesses already suffering amid the coronavirus pandemic. He called on the state and others to unequivocally condemn the violence downtown and take action to revive Portland’s central city.
But he felt like his pleas fell on deaf ears.
“It was almost like they weren’t coming downtown and really seeing the damage and destruction that was happening,” Mark said.
So, Mark and other members of the Portland business community have launched a new coalition, the Rose City Downtown Collective, aiming to pressure officials for more concrete action while launching their own initiatives to revive the city’s core.
The group announced its formation Wednesday in an open letter to the city of Portland signed by nearly 300 members of the business community. In the letter, the group said it is done passively waiting for help and had formed to support local downtown businesses, clean up downtown and connect business owners with the resources they need to clean up damage and ultimately take boards off their windows.
“Just like its citizens, Downtown Portland is hurting right now,” the letter said. “The pandemic has forced many of our great restaurants, local retailers, and local businesses to shutter, stay closed, and even relocate. The repercussions left by COVID 19 paired with over five months of nightly vandalism will affect business and life downtown for years to come.”
There is an ongoing tension over how Portland should balance support for social justice protests with restoring civil norms and business downtown. The pandemic has clouded the issue, emptying downtown of office workers, shoppers, diners and theatergoers. That makes it difficult to ascertain the public’s appetite to return when the coronavirus eventually wanes.
The new downtown collective includes many established property owners, merchants, real estate companies and business services firms. Portland Timbers President of Business Mike Golub and Portland Trail Blazers President Chris McGowan signaled their support, too.
Conspicuously absent for those signing, though, were major downtown tech employers, including Amazon, Puppet, eBay and New Relic. And few of the city’s progressive young business leaders signed the document.
Dozens of downtown businesses have been closed or had their windows boarded up since May 30, when stores were looted during an early morning riot following a peaceful protest in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. While widespread looting has not been commonplace, businesses have complained about ongoing and indiscriminate vandalism for months. In early November, a small group of people wearing black broke off from a larger downtown protest and smashed the windows of a local church and several women-owned businesses.
Vanessa Sturgeon, CEO of TMT Development, faulted politicians at the local, county and state levels for allowing destruction to go on for months. Sturgeon and Mark are serving as spokespeople for the Rose City Downtown Collective. The group voiced its support for civil rights protests in Wednesday’s letter, but said that the ongoing vandalism was taking attention away from the movement.
“There was a failure of politicians to recognize the dichotomy between the Black Lives Matter movement and peaceful protests and the destruction and violence, and it was allowed to go on for too long,” Sturgeon said. “Our goal now is to channel our community’s fears, frustrations and losses into action, so we can begin to heal the city.”
Mark had a heated email exchange in September over property damage with Nik Blosser, who was the governor’s chief of staff until Blosser left to join President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team last month. Blosser called Mark ill-informed for claiming that Brown hadn’t condemned vandalism in downtown Portland, but also implied that he understood why people would commit the destruction.
“We all want the violence to end, but honestly, their point that violence against them has been going on for a very long period of time rings very true, and real actions to change that needs to happen,” Blosser wrote in a Sept. 2 email, which became public through a records request from the Portland Business Journal.
“I know you all know this, and I’d like to see your support for real change for people be as public as your concern about the property damage,” Blosser wrote in the email.
In response, Mark tried to draw a distinction between the peaceful protesters that had taken to the streets in support of racial justice and a small group of people who had vandalized businesses, often after protests ended.
“They have destroyed minority owned businesses while government, other than the Mayor, have said nothing,” Mark wrote. “This is not going to solve (the) equality issue, destroying the City of Portland. Very poor response and does not address the violence or destruction. A walk and discussion with minority owned businesses Downtown, that have had to shutter because of the governors lack of action might help.”
The Rose City Downtown Collective said it would begin the process of reviving downtown by supporting cleanups organized by SOLVE, connecting businesses that have been vandalized to funds and resources to repair damage and creating a system to report graffiti.
“We can help (revive downtown) by making sure businesses look clean, free of debris and trash, free of graffiti,” Sturgeon said. “And we really need to focus as a community on finding compassionate solutions for the homeless.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has been working on an action plan for months to address many of those same issues.
Wheeler was criticized this summer for not moving fast enough to address the problems downtown. But under growing pressure from the business community, Wheeler has worked with city agencies and the other members of the city council to take concrete steps to aid downtown in recent months.
Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly earmarked $100,000 in public funds to clean up graffiti on the path of nightly protests. The city has spent $65,000 on the cleanups so far. Wheeler has also supported SOLVE cleanups downtown, worked to redirect additional funds toward trash and debris removal and directed the Joint Office of Homeless Services to prioritize the addition of shelter spaces for the homeless. Jim Middaugh, a spokesman for the Mayor’s office, said the city was working on other initiatives to aid downtown, including another round of grants to help businesses repair damage.
The city and its partners have also been working on multiple initiatives to support downtown retailers. The initiatives include Winterland PDX, a project to repurpose plywood on the windows of downtown businesses into art pieces, and the creation of a new website promoting local businesses.
Wheeler is meeting with members of the business community to discuss priorities for his second term as well, Middaugh said.
Sturgeon said she and other members of the new coalition believe that Wheeler has been driving in the right direction, but she said the business community needs broad support on the city council to ensure that the right steps are taken to revive downtown.
The group plans to release a downtown action plan later this month with initiatives that they can take to the Portland City Council and other elected officials. In their letter, the Rose City Downtown Collective expressed optimism that newly elected city commissioners may be more responsive to the plight of downtown businesses.
Three of Portland’s five city council seats are in the process of changing. Dan Ryan filled the late Nick Fish’s seat earlier this year, and newly elected council members Mingus Mapps and Carmen Rubio take office next month.
“Our elected officials let us down this year, but we are hopeful that the new city council will step up,” the letter said. “The hard reality is that some local businesses won’t make it to January to see new council members take their posts. The urgency of this situation cannot be overstated.”
Wednesday’s letter was signed by a range of business owners and executives. The list includes Mark, Sturgeon, Portland Business Alliance president Andrew Hoan, Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association president Jason Brandt and Greg Goodman, the co-owner of Portland real estate giant Downtown Development Group, who faulted the Portland City Council for failing to keep downtown safe and clean in an August letter.
Dan Lenzen, co-owner of Dixie Tavern in Old Town and a board member of the Old Town Community Association, signed onto the letter hoping that a group approach toward advocating for downtown would lead to action.
Lenzen said he hopes the group would focus on the issues facing Old Town as part of its emphasis on downtown. In Old Town, in particular, the number of tents along sidewalks grew considerably this summer as the city limited cleanups of homeless camps amid the pandemic.
James Louie, the owner of the iconic Huber’s Cafe, signed the Rose City Downtown Collective letter, too. Louie said that sales at Huber’s are down 60% this year and it has been a challenge for the restaurant to navigate multiple coronavirus shutdowns over the last eight months, including Brown’s recent two-week freeze which banned onsite dining right before Thanksgiving.
But Louie also said that the desirability and reputation of downtown Portland has been significantly damaged over the last six months, both as a product of increased vandalism and national media coverage, which has presented another challenge for downtown businesses.
He said he has talked to many customers who have grown increasingly worried about visiting downtown, and is hopeful that the new group can make a meaningful difference in helping to improve the state of the city’s core.
“Any sort of help for downtown Portland is certainly welcome from the downtown merchants,” Louie said. “Hopefully, if we all work together, we can get the Mayor and the Portland City Council to make downtown Portland a safer place, cut down on the criminal activity and bring people back downtown.”