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Project asks: Where to, Portland?

VisionPDX • Mayor's team gets ready for its next research subject Ñ the public

When Mayor Tom Potter took office in 2005, he unveiled a project to create a new vision for Portland's future.

One 52-member steering committee later, the plan has a name, VisionPDX, and an open house from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at City Hall to kick off the public outreach phase of the project.

Among the challenges the city faces are an anticipated increase of 1 million people in the next 20 years, housing costs that are rising much faster than incomes, and increasing diversity, according to the project's Web site, www.portlandonline.com/mayor/vision.

'VisionPDX aims to tap into people's hopes and dreams for the future, then create meaningful action steps to make it happen,' says Sheila Martin, director of Portland State University's Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies, who co-chairs the committee with Marvin Kaiser, dean of PSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Rethinking Portland Editor Connie Pickett sat down Friday morning with Kaiser and VisionPDX Project Manager Liesl Wendt to discuss the revisioning project.

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Tribune:Portlanders love to create visions and plans. Why do we need another one now?

Kaiser: First, I do think that you have to have some idea of where you want to go.

Second, it seems to me that when you come to a place like Portland, things are changing dramatically. When Gov. Tom McCall and that group of people passed the bottle and open beaches laws that most of us were very proud of, a full third of the people who now live in Oregon were not here. How do we incorporate them into thinking about where we want to go now?

Third, we live here in this bubble of optimism in Portland. I came here in 1993 from Manhattan, Kansas. Portland was on this roll Ñ high-tech was changing the environment and suddenly this all burst, in terms of jobs and the economy.

So I think we have to go back and say: We have to be in charge of ourselves. It's not automatic. Can we create a future economically, educationally, culturally, that we are proud of and we believe we can put into place, rather than just letting events happen to us?

Tribune:How did VisionPDX get started?

Kaiser: During the mayor's campaign, a lot of people would ask him about his vision, but he also discovered there were a lot of different views out there about what was the preferred future of Portland. He also believes strongly that a city works because voices from various socioeconomic and ethnic groups are heard, and he wanted to make sure that this was the case here.

So early in his administration, he and his staff decided to create a new city vision, given that the last one was 15 years ago (in 1991).

In the last several months, the steering committee Ñ chosen by the mayor's staff because they were representative of the broad demographic of Portland Ñ has been developing the structural framework. We divided ourselves into six committees so we could work on various pieces, such as how to reach a diverse group of people, research and communications. I'm serving on the analysis committee to determine what questions are going to guide us and how the results will be analyzed.

Tribune:What are the core questions?

Kaiser: What do you value most about Portland and why? What changes would you most want to see in Portland right now? We wanted to get at values because the sense was to identify the values that Portlanders hold. We wanted to know what was working and what wasn't working so well right now.

Then we wanted people to stretch out and imagine a Portland 20 years in the future where their hopes have been realized. What's different Ñ how is our city a better place? And the last question: As you imagine the Portland you've just described, what are the things that helped us get there?

We don't just want pie in the sky; we want people to tell us how their vision is going to happen.

Because the next step in this process is to talk about choices that we're going to have to make to ensure our vision. For example, if we're going to better fund our schools, what choices are we going to have to make to ensure that?

(The core questions will be posted next week on a new project Web site, www.visionPDX.com, according to Wendt.)

Tribune:How are you gathering this information?

Kaiser: There is the grants project, which we're very proud of. It's an opportunity to use existing Portland organizations that already work with various populations to help us.

One thing that was overwhelming was the number of organizations Ñ 143 Ñ that submitted proposals (30 groups have been awarded a total of $250,000 in grants). It wasn't about the dollars. The largest grant is $15,000 Ñ they're not going to get rich on that. But it must have touched a real nerve with these people, that here the city is asking us to find out what people value, where they think the city ought to be going, and how to get there.

Tribune:How are you going to reach people who aren't joiners or don't identify with a particular ethnic or socioeconomic group Ñ those who spend their days working and raising their kids but don't have much time to get involved elsewhere?

Kaiser: That's a great challenge. One of our committees is about engagement, and its purpose is to help answer that question. So where are the places that are the part of their lives where they have to go? Is it the grocery store?

One of our members is a pastor of a small Presbyterian church, and we're going to do a program after church when people gather for coffee. It's about going as much as possible to all the places where people are Ñ whether it's at work, out here at Saturday Market or online.

Wendt: One of the groups funded was the Oregon Film and Video Foundation (now called Film Action Oregon), which is creating something like a kiosk that will be at events throughout the summer. People can go and see some inspiring stories and then tell their own stories that will be recorded digitally and uploaded to a Web site.

Tribune:Once you get the responses, what's next?

Kaiser: The public outreach part will last from now through August or September. Alongside that, our research committee is gathering all the demographic information it can.

Once that is done, we analyze the results. We're engaging the PSU Survey Research Lab to help us do some of that.

The next step is to develop the choices. For example, if people say we want a K-12 educational system that is second to none regardless of where you live and that prepares students well for their future, we'd say here are the choices that have to happen to get there. Which of these make sense to you?

Once we determine those choices, we can help to develop a strategic plan.

After that, using the example showed by Hillsboro (which adopted a 20-year visioning plan in May 2000), you decide who is going to own what pieces of the plan. It isn't just about the city government. That's one piece, but, for example, what does the Portland Business Alliance say it can help make happen? What can Hands on Portland make happen?

Tribune:How much will this cost taxpayers?

Wendt: The city's contribution is $1.1 million over two years, including the $250,000 for grants. That goes for such items as staffing, research and research analysis, and language interpreters.

Tribune:Skeptics say this will be just another example of Portlanders' love of process with no action. How would you answer them?

Kaiser: The success of this will be that the stakeholders in this community will say: We believe in the values, the choices, the plans, and we're going to take responsibility for this piece of our future.

If it just reverts back to city government, then we didn't do our work right.

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