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Business leaders see flat economy ahead

Alliance survey finds fewer employers, more employees downtown

Portland business leader Scott Langley believes the local economy is lagging behind other major West Coast cities. But that isn't preventing him from investing in it.

In fact, Langley is buying Ashforth Pacific, the local company where he serves as president and chief executive officer.

'Portland is a great place to live and work,' Langley said Wednesday morning at the monthly breakfast forum sponsored by the Portland Business Alliance, where he briefly discussed the deal that will close in about two weeks.

Ashforth Pacific is a real estate investment firm and the largest owner of Class A office space and related parking in Portland. It owns such landmarks as the Pacwest Center, the ODS Tower, One Pacific Square and the Lloyd Center Tower. The company also has offices in Seattle and San Francisco.

Langley declined to say how much he is paying for the privately owned firm. When the deal is complete, it will be known as the Langley Investment Co. and will still be headquartered in Portland.

'There was a lot of soul-searching about where to base the company because Oregon has the highest capital gains tax in the country,' Langley said. 'But sometimes you just have to pay the piper.'

During Wednesday's meeting, Langley was a member of a panel on the local economy with Gary Reynolds, president of the Perkins and Co. accounting firm, and Kathleen Everett, managing director of Boly:Welch, a human resources consulting firm.

All three panelists agreed that the Portland economy is relatively stagnant compared to other West Coast cities. They said Seattle and San Francisco are benefiting from a rise in high-tech and manufacturing employment, while Portland has yet to recover from the recession that technically ended in 2009.

'There's hardly any growth in Portland,' said Reynolds, who predicted that the local economy will stay flat into 2014.

Everett said some companies were hiring temporary employees, which she called a hopeful sign. She said firms like hers were seeing more business in other cities, however.

Asked whether the 'Portlandia' TV show was hurting Portland's reputation by portraying the city as a haven for slackers, Everett said she thought most viewers understood it only portrayed a small portion of the population. She also praised the number of acting and production jobs created by 'Portlandia' and the other two shows being filmed here, 'Leverage' and 'Grimm.'

'Keep working at it'

According to Langley, downtown is benefiting somewhat from people moving in from the suburbs to take advantage of the mass transit system and reduce their dependence on cars.

'More people are now living downtown and taking light rail to work in the suburbs,' said Langley, who noted that some businesses had recently relocated into downtown.

The job increase is documented in the 2010 Downtown Portland Business Census and Survey released this week by the PBA. It reported 3,651 more workers in the Interstate 5/I-405 loop than last year's survey.

Sandra McDonough, alliance president and chief executive officer, was unwilling to make exact comparisons because the organization changed its method of conducting the survey. In the past, the PBA has conducted its own count of downtown businesses and employees. Beginning with last year's count, the organization partnered with the Portland Development Commission to analyze data generated by the Oregon Employment Division.

'We spent a lot of time thinking about making the change and talking with the PDC about it, and in the end we decided that we work so closely together on so many things that it makes sense that we use the same numbers,' McDonough says.

Perhaps because of that, the new survey shows 358 fewer downtown employers than in 2009. The totals are 3,615 employers and 87,038 workers. Despite the disparity in the number of employers, McDonough says the PBA's employment trends have been consistent with those generated by the PDC over the years, making her believe the results are roughly equivalent.

Even though McDonough admits that direct comparisons to the 2009 report are not possible, she believes downtown has added a number of jobs during the past year.

'We've seen a bit of growth, especially since the economy bottomed out. But we still need to keep working at it and keep growing,' McDonough says.

Panhandlers a problem

The 2010 report agrees with previous reports on the largest employment sector: professional, scientific and technical services, which have accounted for more than 1,000 businesses since 2001.

After that, the annual reports differ slightly between the next four largest employment sectors. The 2010 report lists accommodation and food services (372 employers), retail trade (310), other services (285) and finance and insurance (293). The previous reports tended to have them in different orders.

Opinions of business owners and managers about the economy are largely unchanged from 2009. Thirty-eight percent of those surveyed said the health of their businesses was about the same during the prior two years, compared to 34 percent who said it had improved and 28 percent who said it has declined. Those figures are roughly the same as the previous report.

Only 28 percent of those surveyed said they plan to expand during the next two years, about the same as in the 2009 report.

As in the past, most of those surveyed said downtown was safe and clean, but said panhandlers and public inebriates were impacting their businesses.

The annual reports have historically been released in August or September.