When it comes to attracting new jobs to the Portland region, Multnomah County is becoming the wobbly leg on an economic stool propped up by its two neighboring counties.
As reported in today's Portland Tribune, Multnomah County actually lost more than 30,000 jobs between 2000 and 2010. That trend wasn't simply the result of two recessions, because in the same period of time, Washington and Clackamas counties were increasing the number of jobs - albeit modestly.
There are numerous reasons Multnomah County is trailing in job creation, and there also are multiple strategies that must be employed to begin to reverse that long-term trend. But it's undeniable that the decline in employment in Multnomah County is damaging its citizens' quality of life.
It might be tempting to brush away Multnomah County's poor economic performance of the past decade as the inevitable result of the nation's overall economic malaise since the Great Recession hit in late 2007. But the 10,650 jobs that Washington County has added in the past decade stand as a sharp rebuttal to that line of reasoning.
Even in Clackamas County, where many rural communities have been rocked by economic turbulence, the results have been better - a 3,723 gain in jobs between 2000 and 2010.
Little land, lots of taxes
Multnomah County's decline is partially due to the loss of traditional manufacturing jobs in Portland and elsewhere in the county. It also can be attributed, at least in part, to the relative expense of doing business in Multnomah County vs. Washington or Clackamas counties.
From a business retention and recruitment standpoint, Multnomah County has the disadvantage of a countywide business income tax as well as the business license tax within the city of Portland. Multnomah County also has higher property tax rates than its neighbors - and all of these tax burdens can influence siting decisions of professional firms that could set up shop pretty much anywhere within the region.
A lack of land for large industries is another reason for Multnomah County's decline. Communities within Washington County have proven their ability to provide services quickly and make large parcels ready for companies looking to expand, while Portland has pinned its industrial hopes too heavily on the idea of cleaning up and reusing old industrial sites.
Attitude, however, is also a factor. Perhaps that's one thing that's beginning to change. Portland finally has adopted an economic development plan. It is reconfirming the value of traditional harbor-related jobs, and it is reaching out to emerging industries, such as solar-related enterprises.
Listen to businesses already here
Despite its high business taxes, Multnomah County has advantages to tout: excellent transportation, a creative business environment and the opportunity to live, work and play in one of the nation's most desirable places. Outside of Portland, but still within Multnomah County, there is vacant industrial land waiting to be developed in the Gresham area.
But to utilize these assets, Portland and Multnomah County still have a great deal of work to do. Civic and economic-development leaders must better understand the types of employers that would find Portland and Multnomah County attractive.
To begin that process, they should first listen more intently to the businesses that already are here and learn what those companies need to remain in operation in Portland. The 2012 race to elect Mayor Sam Adams' replacement is also an obvious opportunity for discussion of the No. 1 topic on the public's mind: how to increase the number of jobs available in the Portland area.
The goal of these economic efforts shouldn't be for Multnomah County to compete with, or take anything away from, Washington or Clackamas counties. Rather, the entire region's economy will be strengthened if Multnomah County could perform at the same level as its closest counterparts.