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Focus group results show 'lack of identity' in WL business community

Council discussed findings from focus groups at meeting Monday

In summarizing the results of focus groups conducted with West Linn business owners earlier this year, consulting economist Bob Beaulaurier cited an ominous quote from one of the participants.

“I avoid vacant businesses,” the business owner said. “It’s like they’re dead bodies. I just don’t want to go near them.”

Though certainly dramatic, the quote also underscored one of the many challenges West Linn has faced over the years when it comes to attracting and retaining healthy businesses. The focus groups, which were organized as part of the City Council’s 2015 goals, included more than 70 participants from 53 West Linn businesses. The focus groups each lasted about two hours, as business representatives were asked to evaluate everything from business goals to parking problems, city fees and the overall needs of the local business community.

Beaulaurier, a managing partner at the Research 13 firm, appeared before the West Linn City Council Monday to detail his findings.

“This is what I call an ethnographic story,” Beaulaurier said. “What I was looking for was a story on what people think the business community is like here ... you’re kind of like an archaeologist, you brush in the sand and see what you get.”

To a large extent, what Beaulaurier found was a business community that lacked interconnectivity or awareness of West Linn’s economic climate.

“There’s a lot of scared people in the business community who don’t want to work together because they don’t understand how it benefits them,” Beaulaurier said.

In general, Beaulaurier found that businesses in West Linn lacked awareness of their surroundings; they were often unaware of other competing businesses in the area, as well as local community resources and city initiatives like the ongoing Arch Bridge Area planning project.

Perhaps most troubling, Beaulaurier said, was the distinct lack of an identity in West Linn’s business community.

“There was no business personality amongst most of the business people I spoke to,” he said. “There’s no story or personality that really jumped out.”

He cited Hillsboro, which is known as “Silicon Forest,” as an example of the type of identity West Linn could strive for.

“In some ways, it’s good that there isn’t a personality and you can decide what personality you want,” Beaulaurier said.

Focus group participants also had strong views on the West Linn Chamber of Commerce; on the whole, according to Beaulaurier, “there wasn’t great support for the West Linn Chamber of Commerce.”

“People didn’t rate it high and didn’t know how it would help,” he added.

Focus group results showed that many longtime West Linn businesses had left the Chamber, and most found the “return on investment” (ROI) too low to justify membership. As such, Beaulaurier urged the Council to promote networking both at the Chamber and the business community at large.

He also recommended that the city create a full time economic development staff, while also working to partner with nearby Oregon City for business initiatives, consider “bedroom community” businesses like hotels or retirement developments. Beaulaurier said the city should work to debunk the most common misconceptions about West Linn’s economic climate — that West Linn cannot retain businesses, for example, or that rents are too high.

“The big solution is to derail the ‘derailing’ stories,” he said. “As long as these things are true, you’re beating yourself.”

Moving forward, the city will continue to work on its 2015 economic goals. Beyond the focus groups, the Council is also hoping to create new financial incentives for business districts to work more closely with city hall.

“A lot of what I heard and a lot of what I’ve seen (from the focus groups) reflects the struggle West Linn has had all along,” Mayor Russ Axelrod said. “We’re first and foremost a bedroom community and we’ve always sort of struggled with, ‘How do we integrate businesses and what types of small businesses do we want?’”

Monday’s discussion, of course, came in the midst of an ongoing debate about the city’s most significant economic development initiative: the Arch Bridge Area planning project. Beaulaurier did not address the project specifically, but noted that development along the waterfront would be key to the city’s economic future. If West Linn wants development that fits with community ideals, it will have to plan ahead.

“You need some stuff to buttress the other side of the river (in Oregon City),” he said. “Or you’re going to get spillover from the other side of the river.”