The Columbia Corridor is not on many tourists' itineraries, and few of us go there unless we get lost on the way to Kelly Point Park or Lottery Row.
It's the long tract of land that runs across North Portland from the place where the Willamette and Columbia Rivers meet, eastwards past the airport all the way to Sandy.
In Northeast Portland, if you stood among the nice homes on the Alameda Ridge, it's what you'd see to the north, where the land slopes down to the Columbia River.
Once, this was all soggy floodplain. The Columbia Slough still flows slowly, east to west. But is has been channelized. From the 1920s to 1940s, as farmers in east Portland were ousted from Portland by thousands of little wooden houses, they moved north. They drained and diked the land and grew crops there.
Today, it is the largest industrial area in the state, with 2,500 businesses employing 65,000 people. It is home to a treasure trove of middle income, family wage jobs in this time of income disparity, according to Corky Collier, who has been Executive Director of the Columbia Corridor Association since 2004.
"It's Oregon's largest economic corridor," Collier tells the Business Tribune in his cluttered office. "It's also in the City of Portland's industrial sanctuary. We don't pay too much attention to the exact boundaries: you know it when you're there."
"We represent a geographical area which is primarily industrial, so we tend to work on industrial issues. But the Columbia Slough runs up the middle of it for 18 miles. It's kind of a bathtub because of the runoff from the pavement and houses and the low-lying land and these levees. The channel has to be pumped over one levee, and from there, it's gravity flow out to the Willamette River. There's a lot of sensitive environmental habitat as well, so we work on environmental issues too."
What are some of the businesses? "It's the Oregon Food Bank. It's the Humane Society, Mount Hood Community College, Concordia University. We're not a trade association because we don't represent one trade. We represent everybody in this area. That means we'll never agree on everything, and that gives me some flexibility. We're very eclectic. We're trying to make this a better place."
Members pay dues but there are also contracts and grants. He sees his job as trying educate people about their presumptions.
"Those 'dirty factories' are actually high tech industry, they're pretty clean shops. They're using lasers to cut through an inch of stainless steel! This is pretty cool stuff. There are more middle income wages ($32,000 to $50,000) for communities of color than in any other part of the city, and 39 percent of those workers live within five miles of where they work — that's biking distance! That's communities of color not necessarily with a college degree. We're trying to make this a good place to work. Does that mean $100,000 a year jobs? No, it means good family wage jobs for people who would otherwise be working in the service sector for $23,000 a year. That sucks! So we're very proud of that."
He shows a chart of non-industrial jobs by wage in Portland. There are lots of low wage (agriculture, service industry) and high wage jobs (professional services), but the line sags low in the middle.
However, a similar chart of industrial jobs in Portland is the inverse — a rainbow shaped curve — because most of the industrial jobs are middle wage.
Not so dirty jobs
"Which graph do you want? Clearly you want the peak, because you have fewer problems come from that wage gap. These are the reasons we like industrial jobs, they bring value to the area. People have no clue, they just think of them as dirty industrial jobs. Some of them are."
"I was moderating a debate between the mayoral candidates last year, and Jules Bailey held up the graph and said 'This is a problem, we've got a divided city when it comes to wages. Look at the dividing line around 82nd Avenue and I-205.' And I was thinking 'Hey, that's our map!' The guy who made the map, from the Bureau of Planning, was at the back of the room. (Bailey) didn't know I'm the one who asked (the guy from Planning) to gather this data and map it out for us. It's a very disturbing division in the city."
In 1917 one of the Olmstead Brothers (designers of Central Park) saw the area and decided it would make a great driving park for the new motor-cars: build some roads and entice people to have a picnic and look at the birds. "We didn't do that. But there's a lot of value in what we have now."
Collier's position is mostly representing the area to local people in power — the City of Portland and Metro — and occasionally to the state or Oregon.
When he arrived in 2004, Collier wanted to work on brownfield redevelopment. His board wasn't interested but he held a meeting anyway and it was packed. One of the naysayers, a banker, changed his minded, funded the clean up of an abandoned truck terminal on Portland Road, and became an evangelist for brownfield remediation.
"It's back in use as a truck terminal, that's what we want to see. Now we have our (statewide) brownfield coalition, co-hosted by Metro, and it's making progress. The main thing is we are trying to be as dense as possible and if we're going to do that, we're going to clean them. The bigger issue is they are contaminated and we need to clean them up. We've been tripping over ourselves for many years because we don't want to clean them up and let the polluter off he hook. Well, the polluters are dead, the ones that aren't dead are retired and long gone. But put yourself 100 years in the future, if we're still right where we are now, would you still want to make sure those polluters pay? Let's get them cleaned up. Then we can develop the land. We did a study 10 years ago that if the state did the cleanups in the Portland area, they would make their money back in 10 years. And after that you've got the tax income rolling in year after year."
Cleaning up means taking out hot spots of polluted soil and capping the ground to keep toxins in.
"Cleaning up an old gas station or dry cleaners, they're a dime a dozen, we've got that dialed in now. With bigger industrial sites, where we don't know what contaminants on the property, is going to be much more expensive." Collins says his office doesn't get too involved in the Willamette Superfund, because the Superfund is very large.
"We got the EPA regional administrator and the Governor's office to join us in a meeting with some business leaders a year ago, to anticipate the plan. But we focus on all those other brownfields that nobody's paying attention to."
Collier lights up at mention of the levee recertification process being managed by the Multnomah County Drainage District.
"They're getting the levees recertified by the federal government. It's a success story as far as the political process, it's been going really well. The Army Corp of Engineers and FEMA have to certify the levees after Hurricane Katrina. Our levees are in good shape but they need recertification, maybe some patches. It was the railroad levee that broke and caused the Vanport flood in 1948, so that needs to be rebuilt."
Collier, an intern and his assistant Marissa are the entire staff, in an office just off Northeast Columbia Boulevard near the Portland International Airport. He sometimes gets called in as a peacemaker. "Because we have such an eclectic mix of businesses and homeowners, it's natural for us to say lets sit down and focus on some solutions. We're not an advocate for any particular issue. People get stuck in this process of trying to win the issue. We don't do that very much."
Here come the Greens
With the Slough running between businesses, environmentalists and industrialists are entwined.
"Environmentalists tend to think of us as a business organization. OK, fair enough. But then the walls start going up. It gets frustrating for me sometimes. I'll be sitting in a room sometimes arguing for a business perspective on something, and I'll start to see this environmental-versus-business fight brewing in the room, and I'm looking around at all the environmentalists, and I know them reasonably well. And all together they don't come close to saving the number of forest wildernesses that I've saved in previous jobs. They haven't fought as many dams as I have, or protected as many rivers, as part of teams, of course. I was going on lobbying trips with Friends of the River (in California) in the mid 1990s, we'd walk into room with congressional delegation, and I'd say 'I'm an environmentalist and I want to talk to you about jobs and economic impact,' and that would stop them in their tracks. That combination was very uncommon. We still see that problem here in Portland. "
The Vancouver side of the river is different. It's not lowland, it's dryer and not as developed. Collier is working with Fort Vancouver on a way to have their Fourth of July fireworks more visible to Oregon in the Columbia River.
…And the weed growers
A bigger problem now is losing factory space to indoor agriculture. The cannabis grow facilities are indoor agriculture, and according to the OLCC, out of 78 applications so far, 49 of them are in the Columbia Corridor, mostly along Columbia Boulevard.
"For us it came down to jobs data. We don't care what people are producing, but if these are agriculture jobs at $25,000 a year, that sucks. A building owner could lease out 20 lots of 10,000 square feet, the maximum amount, and take up a lot of space. You could end up losing a lot of middle income jobs. But processors, distribution and lab testing people are getting paid higher wages. Do we fight it? How can we encourage them to vertically integrate?"
The idea is to affect the zoning. To limit the amount of agriculture allowed on a certain site, and then allow more if they bring in those other jobs. His approach began by sending an email to the board to come to a meeting.
"We had the meeting at the Bureau of Planning because they are struggling with it too. There were bankers and lawyers there. Once we get a little more language together, we'll draft a letter and send it to City Council. We'd leave it to them to draft the language — call us if you need us."
"When I've been successful it's because I caught something early. So I won't have to fight, I won't have to go knocking on the mayor's door. I'd rather stop something becoming a big problem. There's so much on my radar now. But the levees — we did catch that early, and we built a wonderful coalition of people focused on. And the Sauvie Island Drainage District said 'Can we join in on your process?' I don't want to sit down and argue over whether the levees should have been built. They were."
"Sir Francis Bacon said, 'If you begin with certainties, you'll end up with questions. But if you begin with questions you'll end up with certainties. If you see a problem, catch it early, before you have built up your walls."
A shorter version of this story ran in the print edition of the Business Tribune on April 21, 2017