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Dont encourage a sense of entitlement

Our Opinion

Ask merchants in any urban business district in America about their concerns, and taxes and parking are likely to be at the top of the list.

Not in Portland, however, where the perennial complaints about tax burdens and lack of convenient customer parking are eclipsed by more immediate worries: panhandling, homelessness and public inebriation.

For all its remarkable success, downtown Portland is dogged by its continual struggles with a transient population whose presence is both highly visible to the public and oddly tolerated by the powers that be. Some Portland activists seem to shrug off the issue, describing it as a local symptom of a national problem.

But a recent survey by the Portland Business Alliance shows a high level of concern among people who actually run businesses downtown. More than half these merchants report that panhandling is the downtown area's biggest problem, and the more generic issue of 'transients' ranks as a close second. Much lower on the list are worries about high taxes and cost or availability of parking.

From our viewpoint, the merchant survey provides further evidence that Portland has a bigger problem with panhandling and transients than other cities. But you don't have to take our word for it. Consider also the experience of Panera Bread Co., which recently conducted an experiment in three cities where Panera wanted to do something good for the community by allowing people to pay what they want for meals. In the other two cities, the voluntary payments were 80 percent of what the cafes would normally receive if they were charging full retail prices - enough to sustain the programs.

In Portland, however, Panera found that such a large number of people were willing to take food for free that its café expenses were not covered by customers who willingly paid more than necessary. This difference led Panera's chairman, who visited Portland to investigate the mystery, to conclude that Portland's transient population has a different attitude.

Ron Shaich says people who were availing themselves of free food at Panera's Hollywood restaurant had 'a sense of entitlement' not found in the other two cities with Panera Cares cafes - Detroit and St. Louis.

Shaich is willing to keep trying, by educating paying and nonpaying clientele about the purpose of the Panera Cares program.

We admire his tenacity and commitment, but we think Portland has something to learn from Panera's three-city comparison: Portland is not like other places, and these problems are not just the result of a bad economy.

Portland may be justifiably proud of its compassion and tolerance for those suffering hard times, but the evidence is that this community also doesn't establish boundaries and expectations for those people in ways that other cities do.

From an economic standpoint, downtown business people can attest that cultivating a sense of entitlement is not a particularly effective way of combating homelessness or of promoting the healthiest possible environment in the city's business districts.