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Downtown loses nearly 5,000 jobs in sour economy

Downtown Portland lost nearly 5,000 jobs last year, a drop that brought total employment in the area bounded by Interstate 5 and Interstate 405 down to 83,023, according to the Portland Business Alliance's second annual business census.

The job losses represented 'kind of a bleeding effect, across the board,' said Wendi Valenti, the business group's market research manager, who directed the survey.

Overall, the results reflect the downturn in the economy.

'It's tough times right now for everyone,' said Scenna Shipley, the alliance's vice president for business development. 'Frankly, we're really encouraged that we've lost as few jobs as we did.'

Many small businesses 'are just struggling to hang on,' Shipley said.

Asked to gauge how the health of their business had changed in the last year, 26 percent of downtown business operators surveyed said it had declined in 2002, compared with 17 percent who said so in 2001.

'The fact that it declined well over our statistical margin of error (3 percent) shows that folks are really, sincerely being affected by the economy,' Shipley said. 'I think that's a bad sign.'

The wobbly economy also showed up in another of the survey's results: the number of businesses that reported they were avoiding 'long-term commitments to the downtown market.' Thirty-eight percent of businesses have leases that expire within the next two years; another 8 percent rent on a monthly basis.

For all its economic problems, Shipley said, 'I think that downtown has fared better than other areas in the Portland metro region.'

Office vacancies in downtown have stayed between 12 percent and 16 percent for a long time, she noted, while other areas outside the central city with heavy office concentrations have far higher vacancy rates.

Moreover, the total number of downtown businesses actually increased by 32 in 2002, to 3,985.

Valenti said she suspected that this was the result of people having left midsized employers Ñ perhaps being laid off Ñ and going into business on their own.

Downtown's two largest employment sectors Ñ finance and insurance and professional, scientific and technical services Ñ lost 912 employees and 889 employees, respectively. Employment in the information sector fell by 890.

Retail lost 513 employees, mostly the result of the May Co.'s decision to merge Meier & Frank Co. management operations with another May chain, Robinsons-May, in Los Angeles. However, Valenti said, that loss was tempered by the opening of Whole Foods Market in the Pearl District.

The accommodations and food services sector recorded the biggest downtown employment increase last year, adding 321 jobs, in part because of expansion of the Hilton Portland's Executive Tower, plus the opening of Portland City Grill.

Although 29 percent of respondents Ñ 2 percent more than in 2001 Ñ called downtown 'very clean,' 55 percent of business operators said that 'public inebriates, transients and vagrants' have some impact on their employees, customers or clients, 4 percent more than in 2001.

Sixty-two percent said they considered downtown safe in 2002, a 5 percent drop from 2001.