Lessons Learned: Portland, Ore.

May 18, 2012

By Andrew Maraniss

Last week, I was one of 110 Nashvillians who traveled to Portland and Eugene, Ore., for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s 21st annual Leadership Study Mission.

Apart from being a fabulously well-organized trip to a beautiful part of the country, the four-day visit was valuable for a number of reasons. It’s ironic to say that it takes traveling 2,300 miles to network with people who probably all work within a mile’s radius of one’s office, but there’s nothing like spending 12-plus hours in planes and airports, and another six-plus hours in trains and buses, to really get to know some people.

More important, the trip was enlightening, not only in terms of what we learned about Portland, but also what we learned about Nashville from a distance.

Some random takeaways from the trip: Portland’s economy is highly volatile, with big highs and lows tied to the state of the U.S. economy as a whole (Nashville’s more stable economy, meanwhile, enters recessions later and emerges from them earlier than the U.S. average) … While Portland has a strong small-business presence and is a haven for entrepreneurs in some sectors, there are no large corporate headquarters in town to speak of … this is one of several factors contributing to a shortage of jobs for the tens of thousands of newcomers to the city … Nashville, meanwhile, is routinely recognized as one of the top U.S. cities for corporate relocations and expansions…

Even with more people than jobs, a large Intel facility and a reputation as one of the hippest cities in the country, Portland struggles to find qualified “tech talent,” a challenge Nashville is also addressing (and if a hip, West Coast city like Portland is having a hard time attracting the right technology workers, we’re really going to have to get serious about it here) … The livability and density (in a good way) of downtown Portland were quite impressive. Unlike Nashville, where downtown retail and residential are still in the early stages of a renaissance, downtown Portland is full of major retailers and department stores, and there are blocks and blocks of fun neighborhoods that appear to be a cross between East Nashville and Hillsboro Village – independent restaurants, shops, bikes, dogs, small urban parks, young people, historic houses, cool condos, etc …

Developers appear to be trying to “out-green” each other when it comes to the construction of new buildings, and around 7 percent of Portlanders bike to work each day … Portland sees itself as the emerging capital of the “global green economy” … Public transportation options abound in Portland and Eugene, connecting neighborhoods, attractions and centers of commerce while reducing traffic congestion and the need for parking … Even in a city like Eugene, however, which is held up as a model on how to build an effective bus rapid transit (BRT) system, there are some local critics of the effort, pointing to a need for Nashville to “do it right” without taking shortcuts when building out its proposed BRT system, to properly educate residents on the advantages of the network and to maintain momentum for the project over the many years it would take to completely build it out … We heard many times that, while transit options draw workforce and jobs, “process is as important as product” and that lines of communication between all stakeholders must remain open at all times …

 And finally: The thing that struck me most about our visit was how little we heard about partisanship or regional feuds. Without fail, every speaker talked about partnerships and collaboration, and they all seemed to take great pride and ownership in their city. For those of us listening, the people we heard from were all Portlanders; we didn’t know or care whether they were Republicans or Democrats or any other restrictive label. Even if that impression didn’t quite reflect reality (surely partisanship is as alive and well in Portland as it is anywhere else), it was refreshing to hear people talk for four days about their respective roles in making their hometown a better place to live, and to have the sense – if only because we didn’t know all the behind-the-scenes details — that they were all pulling in the same direction. Maybe it’s Pollyannaish, but I left Portland hoping that as Nashvillians we will continue to focus on what binds us as a community, so that we can work together to make our shared hometown a better place — for us and for generations to come.

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