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Greater Portland cranks up job focus

Regional leaders look for ways to increase exports, industries


After years of confusion and false starts, Greater Portland Inc., the region's public-private economic development organization, finally appears to be getting serious.

Hundreds of business, political and community leaders cheered when GPI Chief Executive Officer Sean Robbins gave a progress report at the organization's fifth Annual Economic Summit last week.

During the past year, GPI has partnered with government and business groups to create more than 500 jobs in the region. The most recent are 10 executive-level positions in the Magnum boot company moving from California to Portland.

And 25 current projects could create up to 3,000 more jobs in fields ranging from software development to health care to advanced manufacturing.

"Lots of opportunities are at hand," Robbins told the Thursday gathering at the Portland Art Museum.

Even more ambitious is the Greater Portland Export Plan launched in partnership with the city, Metro, the Port of Portland, the Portland Business Alliance and other business-oriented groups. Developed with the help of the Brookings Institution, it aims to double exports from the region from $21 billion to $42 billion a year in five years.

"Doubling exports would create 110,000 new jobs in five years. It would take a lot more to recruit that many new jobs," Robbins said.

Last week's event was only the second summit since GPI was created by merging two largely ineffective regional economic development organizations in April 2011 — the private-sector Greenlight Greater Portland and the publicly funded Regional Partners for Economic Development. Until the merger, business and elected leaders had privately said they were confused about the roles and responsibilities of each organization.

Now, GPI is the only organization working to retain and create jobs with a board that includes both public and private leaders from throughout the Portland-Vancouver region. It includes Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington, Yamhill and Columbia counties in Oregon and Clark and Skamania counties in Washington. Throughout the summit, Robbins and other speakers repeatedly stressed need to overcome political rivalries.

"We need to check our swords at the door and get results," said Robbins, who was hired as chief executive officer in October 2011. "This is about people changing their lives through the dignity of work."

Doubling exports

Despite that, historic and current tensions within the region still surfaced from time to time. Not everyone at the summit is completely comfortable with Portland being included in the organization's name. According to Robbins, it was chosen because that is how the world identifies the region, and city is gaining an international reputation for innovation and livability. Several speakers, including keynote speaker Ben Stein, the comedian and economic writer, said Portland was getting known around the world for signature products, including craft beers and gourmet coffees.

"There's no reason Portland can't double its exports to the 96 percent of the world that doesn't have what we have," said Stein.

But when he spoke, Metro President Tom Hughes, the former mayor of Hillsboro, was quick to refer to the "greater Portland region."

"In the future, I'd like to see more emphasis on 'greater' in greater Portland," Hughes said after the summit.

Indeed, most of the businesses highlighted at the summit are based in Beaverton and Hillsboro. They included Act-On Software, run by speaker Raghu Raghauana, and three of the four businesses represented on a panel that discussed increasing exports.

The fourth panelist was Port of Portland Chief Operating Officer Sam Ruda, who alluded to the ongoing tension between the City Council and Portland Harbor business owners on city plans to increase the amount of industrial land set aside for preservation.

"We want the welders at Gunderson to have jobs in the future, too," said Ruda, referring to one of the companies challenging the city's plans in court.

Adams misses session

Mayor Keith Mays of Sherwood closed the summit by citing recent business openings and expansion in the smaller cities in the region. He noted that there were about 1,500 acres of undeveloped industrial land in the Sherwood area that could help the region grow.

Mayor Sam Adams lowered Portland's profile at the summit when he unexpectedly failed to show up in the morning to deliver remarks titled, "Observations on economic development." Adams’ office said he was unintentionally double-booked and chose instead to attend a conference on green building standards hosted by the Portland chapter of the Building Owners and Managers Association.

Emcee Stephen Babson, managing director of Endeavour Capital, repeatedly chided Adams for his absence during the rest of the summit.

After the summit, Robbins continued to stress that local boundaries don't matter when it comes to economic development.

"It doesn't make any sense for local jurisdictions to be competing against one another. Our competitors have been thinking regionally for 10, 15 and 20 years. We're just beginning to catch up," Robbins said.