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Conflicted chorus tilts at new windmill factory

Portland's getting a windmill factory, so that puts Vera Katz in a new role: the Mayor of La Mancha.

Of course, the conservative Don Quixotes in town Ñ already upset about Portland's anti-business stance Ñ are hoisting their lances and attacking the windmills because of their uncertain future in our energy plans. But with the factory promising 1,000 new jobs, the mayor must be singing like she's in a Broadway musical.

Yes, the city went after the Vestas corporation pretty hard, but as overtures go, this one struck a good note Ñ even though it remains to be seen if 'Green Industry' will be a big production number or just a few short verses of 'The Impossible Dream.'

It also remains to be seen whether this one big score can quiet the growing local clamor that Portland is a poorly governed, anti-business flop with a bleak future if things don't change. Yet we continue to do very well in the surveys of the best cities in America. Who's right? Money magazine, which raved about us, or Brainstorm magazine, which trashed us?

The key statistic the mayor's critics point to is an unemployment rate that Ñ at more than 8 percent Ñ leads the nation. The theory is that we gambled too much on high technology, so we got clobbered in the downturn.

But it may be too early to call the strategy a mistake. After all, the American automobile industry started with numerous companies, too, followed by a secondary phase during which many of them went broke. When the shakeout ended, the industry returned to spectacular growth.

Hopefully, we're in a similar lull with high tech. The real point is that choosing to gamble on computers was a reasonable move. What were we supposed to focus on? Windmills?

Brainstorm's main evidence of an anti-business mentality is the case of Columbia Sportswear. Apparently, a bidding hassle with Multnomah County over an office building and a meeting with some arrogant midlevel city bureaucrats combined to alienate the company, which then decided to move.

The result was unfortunate, but I can't believe Columbia Sportswear didn't demand a meeting with the mayor, even if it was just to vent before leaving. If you're getting the runaround from some bumbling clowns with an attitude, at least take the matter to the top.

Despite this admitted fiasco, the recent griping will have to get a lot worse before I'm convinced that Portland is failing as a city.

Sure, some of the proposed spending projects could drive anyone nuts Ñ planning can be terribly addictive. The fix you get from adding streetcars wears off, and you've got to find another project. The next thing you know, you're building a theme park of a city. Too bad there isn't a crisis line called Planners Anonymous.

But to suggest Portland is some kind of shrinking failure is ridiculous. Imagine a time-lapse film of downtown starting in 1975. If that's failure, then what does success look like? Sure, we need to be competitive when it comes to attracting business, but here's a competition for you: Try thinking of a better city anywhere in America.

Enough. 'The Mayor of La Mancha' should be opening off-Broadway sometime in 2004, and even the detractors will play a part. Why? Because every musical needs a chorus, even if it's just a chorus of criticism.

Bill McDonald is a Portland writer and musician.