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City's small businesses feel shut out

BACKSTORY: Alliance aims to show the benefits of local outfits on the economy
by: JIM CLARK, Robyn Shanti and Mike Roach would like to see small local businesses get a seat at the table when leaders create developments like Cascade Station.

Dick Osborne looks outside his Pearl District coffee company and waves to the dozens of condominium and apartment units subsidized by the Portland Development Commission. 'I don't get that in my house,' he said. 'What's PDC doing for the small guy?'

Osborne is sales manager of World Cup Coffee and Tea, a family-owned business that's been in Portland for 20 years. He's one of a few local business leaders who say that chain-store developments like Cascade Station often are a missed opportunity for city leaders, when they don't give locally owned businesses incentives for getting a seat at the table.

'They take the path of least resistance,' said Mike Roach, co-owner of Paloma, a women's clothing store in Hillsdale. 'When they're dealing with effective public subsidies, they need to stop and ask, Are the tax dollars being spent in the most effective way to support local businesses?'

Both men belong to an alliance called the Sustainable Business Network of Portland, which works to educate citizens about the benefits of shopping locally.

The business network, which fought to keep Wal-Mart from locating at the Burnside Bridgehead, says that every dollar spent at a locally owned outfit circulates at least three more times in the community because the owners tend to use local printers, contractors and other services.

They ascribe to the same philosophy author Michael Shuman writes about in his 2006 book, 'The Small-Mart Revolution,' in which he discusses the value of self-reliant communities and helps locally owned businesses with proactive strategies to compete in the global marketplace.

'We think local retailers are even better than the nationals,' said John Whisler, co-owner of Kitchen Kaboodle, a Portland-run business founded in 1975.

'People can get better products and lower prices at a local retailer. But it's not something that should be done out of pity for us, or ideology. You should only shop at a local retailer if you want to. We think we're just as good, or better.'

Whisler admits Ikea will be direct competition to his store, but he welcomes it: 'We're used to competing in that market,' he said.

Both he and Robyn Shanti, coordinator of the 350-member business network, said they're not opposing Ikea but rather the system that supports it.

'We're not appalled by Ikea,' Shanti said. 'When I heard Ikea was coming to town, I was excited, as a person who buys things. Once or twice a year, I'll shop at a big-box store. But when it comes down to the model of development, it's a missed opportunity.'

Bruce Allen, a Portland Development Commission senior development manager, said the PDC has provided economic incentives such as low-interest loans and grants to smaller businesses at Cascade Station. He said 25 to 30 spaces at the site are set aside for smaller businesses.

Joe Searls, 26, a software company employee who works in Northeast Portland, thinks there's plenty of room in Portland for both chain stores and local stores.

'I don't hate Ikea or Wal-Mart,' he said. 'But I also won't go there for some things because I want help (with service) or I want a better atmosphere.'

Whatever becomes of the current debate over big-box stores, it's a good discussion for the city to have, said Patrick Donaldson, president of the Alliance of Portland Neighborhood Business Associations.

He credits the city for work it has done to promote local businesses so far, such as declaring the Saturday after Thanksgiving 'Buy Local' day. He thinks people like Osborne, Shanti and Roach raise legitimate concerns but also thinks there's a balance to helping local businesses and letting the free market run its course.

'I welcome the Ikeas of the world, particularly when they are a legal business, sited legally, and like the rest of us go through the process of deliberation, discussion and decisions the community goes through,' he said.

When asked how the city can do better, Donaldson said, 'It's my opinion that the city of Portland, the City That Works, is working very hard to figure that out.'

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