Business for A Better Portland builds its influence
Usually, only a few people at a time come to Urbanite, a new interior design hub that provides space for dozens of vendors to sell vintage furnishings and collectibles. But on the evening of Jan. 30, the former furniture store at the east end of the Morrison Bridge was jammed with more than 125 people, including business owners, elected officials, and government planners.
The reason was the first membership meeting of the year of Business for Better Portland, a year-old business association whose participants largely reflect the city's progressive political leanings. It opened with a videotaped statement from liberal 3rd District Congressman Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, who urged those in attendance to get involved in civic affairs. That was followed by a panel discussion on transportation issues, where calls for increased transit and protected bike lanes were greeted with applause.
"All of my employees bike to work," says founding member and Business for Better Portland chair Mara Zepeda, expressing the experience of many of the business owners there. In fact, a show of hands revealed that almost half of those at the event biked there. Zepeda is co-founder and CEO of Switchboard, which connects college students needing support to alumni willing to assist them.
Afterward, 20 members volunteered to serve on a work group that will study the issues discussed by panelists in more detail and recommend something to advance a specific goal — a process the association terms a Call to Action. The next membership meeting, scheduled for April, will focus on the difficulties that minority and women entrepreneurs have raising investment capital, and will include the same follow-up process.
Such efforts have helped the organization grow from 15 to to slightly more than 200 members in the past year. Many are young tech-related and design-oriented firms. Zepeda says only a few members had previously joined any business or civic organization.
That total is still far less than city's oldest business organization, the Portland Business Alliance, which has more than 1,900 members.
"We welcome Business for a Better Portland. Any organization that can get businesses involved in civic affairs is a good thing. We look forward to hearing from them on how we can work together on issues of mutual interest," says Portland Business Alliance President and CEO Sandra McDonough.
Different operating model
The short-term Call to Action is different from the operation of other business and civic organizations in town, including the PBA, the City Club of Portland, the Central Eastside Industrial Association, the Columbia Corridor Association, and Venture Portland, the umbrella organization for the city's neighborhood business associations.
For example, the PBA partners with other business-related organizations on detailed economic studies. It also lobbies the City Council, the Oregon Legislature and Congress, and endorses political candidates and ballot measures. It helped broker the transportation funding package approved by the 2017 Oregon Legislature that included additional funding for road, transit, bike and pedestrian projects, and supports the Clean & Safe program that employs formerly homeless people to help maintain downtown livability.
The City Club also conducts in-depth studies on current issues and endorses ballot measures. The Central Eastside Industrial Association and Columbia Corridor Association work on employment and zoning issues in their regions, which include the inner eastside and the Portland side of the Columbia River. And Venture Portland is focused on neighborhood-related issues.
According to Zepeda, the idea for the organization came about in 2015 when she and a number of friends, who were also tech-oriented business owners, began talking about how fast-growing tech companies were unintentionally harming the San Francisco area by driving up housing costs and increasing congestion. She says they all appreciated how the Portland area's transportation and land use planning policies had been designed years ago to better accommodate such growth. But they did not know how many of their peers understood that, and wanted to do something to educate and encourage them to support such policies as the urban growth boundary, which determines where future growth can take place and is administered by Metro, the elected regional government.
Not meant as alternative
Originally, the organization was all volunteer and called itself the Portland Independent Chamber of Commerce, called "peacock" for short. It used the Call to Action process to support a number of projects by other organizations, including Vanport Mosaic, which is documenting and publicizing the history of Oregon's former second-largest city, which was destroyed when a Columbia River levee failed in what is now North Portland. The emerging organization also backed the effort supported by some Democrats at the 2017 Oregon Legislature to raise taxes on larger businesses, which failed. More recently, members got together to prepare package supplies for the homeless after surveying Street Roots newspaper vendors about their needs. Among the surprise answers: movie passes.
Some took the original independent chamber name as meaning the organization was an alternative to the PBA, which is the city's official chamber of commerce. Zepeda insists that was not the intent. Rather, she says the organization was designed to meet the needs of small- to medium-sized business owners, like her.
"We don't have a lot of time, or a vice president of meetings to represent us, but we want to make a difference," she says.
By February 2017, Zepeda and organization leaders concluded it needed to become more professional, with membership dues and sponsorship opportunities to generate enough money to hire a full-time staff. It hired Ashley Henry, who formerly worked for the Oregon Business Association, as its chief collaboration officer. After changing its name, the membership meeting was held at the offices of eROI, a digital marketing firm founded by member Ryan Buchanan.
Blumenauer attended and talked about how, in the past, members of the local business community had lobbied elected officials to plan and fund such iconic projects as Pioneer Courthouse Square and the first MAX line between Portland and Gresham.
"Earl was incredibly supportive," says Buchanan, who characterizes most members as value-driven entrepreneurs. "Having a brand that reflects your values is a competitive advantage among consumers who share them."
Blumenauer says the organization is filling an important need.
"When I first met with them a year ago, I was impressed that they were working to engage this new wave of younger entrepreneurs that do things differently than legacy businesses. We need more voices and diversity in the business community," says Blumenauer, who does not consider it an alternative to any other business or civic organization.