Julia Shumway

PORTLAND (Oregon Capitol Chronicle) – In a closed-door meeting with more than 40 business leaders, community advocates and local, state and federal elected officials on Tuesday, Gov. Tina Kotek laid out a challenge: Within the next three months, the group will come up with a plan to save downtown Portland.

Portland’s problems, particularly since the COVID pandemic began, have been well-documented. Offices sit unused and empty after employees switched to working from home. Tents and trash line streets, public drug use has skyrocketed since the state decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs in 2020 with the city experiencing record-breaking numbers of homicides in the past three years.

Kotek, who has spent much of her first year in office traveling the state and meeting with local leaders in each county, described Portland’s success as a matter of statewide economic concern.

“Everyone cares about what’s happening in Portland,” Kotek said. “They know that the success of Portland is good for the entire economy of the state. It is our entry point for tourists, it’s our cultural hub.”

She’s co-chairing the Portland Central City Task Force with Dan McMillan, president and CEO of The Standard, a Portland-based insurance company. The group will meet twice more, in September and October, and present a final plan at the Oregon Business Plan’s annual Oregon Leadership Summit, a December event that draws top executives and government officials from around the state.

The task force is meeting behind closed doors, but Kotek and McMillan plan to hold press conferences after each meeting. Kotek defended the private meetings to reporters, saying people need to be able to have “frank, confidential conversations.”

“But the information that will come out will definitely be made public,” she added. “It’s not like we’re hiding what the conversations result in and the recommendations and the action plan, so that will be very public as we go forward.”

Most work will be done by five subcommittees focused on community safety, livability, housing and homelessness, taxes and the area’s “value proposition.”

The issues facing Portland as it recovers from the pandemic are similar to issues facing other large cities, especially ones with downtown cores full of offices. Many employees left their downtown offices with the COVID pandemic in 2020 and have not returned full-time, sticking to fully remote work or hybrid schedules that bring them in two or three days a week.

At noon on Tuesday, the area surrounding the office building where the group met was closer to a ghost town than the bustling downtown of a major city. Most of the office towers had signs advertising retail space available to rent and few people wandered the streets just blocks from a riverfront park.

Downtown Portland will need to shift away from relying on commercial offices, McMillan said.

“We see a different mix in the future where you have a vibrant mix of the arts, services, some offices as well as residential,” McMillan said. “That will take some time to change, but we do see this whole downtown core mix changing over time, and I think that’s part of the vision.”