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Downtown ads in jeopardy?

Popular marketing campaign may lose out in city's parking garage shuffle

Downtown Portland merchants are worried that a marketing program they think boosts business ÑÊpaid for largely from city parking garage revenues ÑÊmay get lost in an impending shuffle of city garage contracts and budget cuts.

It could mean an end to the successful and award-winning 'I'd rather be downtown. Portland' campaign.

In 2001 and 2002, the city's SmartPark garage contract provided $645,000 annually toward a three-year, $3.6 million campaign promoting downtown as a place to shop, dine and enjoy cultural events while parking at one of the six city-owned facilities.

The remainder of the marketing cost came from the Portland Business Alliance, which has managed the garages under a contract with the city since 1982, when the group was the Association for Portland Progress. But the marketing program went into limbo earlier this month when the city's Bureau of General Services recommended that the contract be shifted to another manager, Star Park.

Seeking new sources

One sign that the program's demise might be imminent was the departure earlier this month of Christopher Finks, the alliance's vice president for marketing, who oversaw the marketing effort. He was laid off by the PBA.

'The business climate downtown right now is very, very fragile,' said Joe D'Alessandro, executive director of the Portland Oregon Visitors Association, 'so I am concerned about the lapse in marketing of downtown.'

'The bottom line, regardless of who is controlling marketing of downtown, is that it needs to happen,' said Ashley Heichelbech, retail manager for the PBA. 'That's of grave concern to a lot of retailers.'

Sam Adams, Mayor Vera Katz's chief of staff, said, 'Marketing of the central downtown is very important to us. We're in the process now of finishing an RFP (request for proposals) at the same time that we are searching for adequate funding for it.'

Ron Bergman, general services director for the city of Portland, said, 'I think there is a genuine interest on the part of the City Council of finding a way to put a program together, but what we don't have nailed down is the amount of money that we're going to be able to put forward.'

Adams said the 'internal goal' is to match last year's amount, which he said was $620,000. 'I don't know honestly if we're going to be able to reach it, but we're making every effort,' he said.

Cynthia McBurney, owner of Kathleen's of Dublin, said city commissioners have told her, 'If we have money for marketing, we'll put out a request for proposals. To me, 'If we have money' means 'we aren't going to do it.' I don't have any hope.'

Campaign brought customers

The campaign launched two years ago was the largest marketing initiative in the Portland Business Alliance's 22-year history. It was credited with boosting holiday sales that year despite the retail gloom that followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In 2002, it helped businesses hold the line in an even shakier economy.

The year-round campaign has won both national and statewide awards. Finks said it's now viewed as a standard for how to promote downtown. Previous advertising, he said, 'was very garage-focused.'

The approach changed 'from building the brand of garages to building the brand of downtown that would fill the garages,' he said.

'It was the first time we'd had a real, coordinated, market-driven effort,' McBurney said. 'It brought new vitality to downtown Portland; it brought people who hadn't come downtown in years.'

Jeff Miller, general manager of Saks Fifth Avenue, said the department store felt a direct impact from the promotion, which was aimed at downtown workers as well as at residents of the metro area living within 10 miles of downtown. 'We had a definite uptick in local customers we had not seen before,' he said.

'I have a major fear that the city doesn't understand the importance, especially now, of marketing downtown as a destination,' he said. 'We're in an economic time where we need help to market downtown as a destination.'

Molly Spencer of the Mercantile, co-chairwoman of the Downtown Retail Council, said she 'would really like to see funding come through for downtown marketing in some way. If it has been there and it's no longer there, then it needs to be replaced somehow Ñ that would be my bottom line.'