• Melvin 'Pete' Mark

Commercial real estate developer

In 1981, Melvin 'Pete' Mark had just opened the Columbia Square building, and he managed to fully lease it by the time the recession hit full force later that year. Three other Portland high-rises came on the market soon after: the U.S. Bancorp Tower and KOIN Center in 1983 and PacWest Center in 1984.

'Our timing was good,' Mark said. 'We felt when Columbia Square was filled we saw signs the town was being overbuilt.'

Mark, chairman of the Melvin Mark Cos. real estate investment and development group, sees countless differences between the 1981-82 recession and today's economic struggles.

Then, the high-tech industry had yet to arrive; Georgia-Pacific Corp. was about to pick up stakes and move its headquarters to Georgia; and Gov. Vic Atiyeh declared Oregon's timber industry in a state of disaster. Half of the state's mills had shut down or cut production.

Legislators returned to Salem three times for emergency budget-cutting sessions as inflation raced out of control.

Meanwhile, prospective homeowners faced a whopping 20 percent interest rate. Unemployment soared to a record 11.5 percent in 1982 Ñ almost twice what it is now.

Today, unemployment in Oregon is the highest in the nation at 7.4 percent. But Mark noted that there are other stable ingredients that will help prevent Oregon's economy from collapsing Ñ low interest rates, a strong housing market and the deep bench of the high-tech industry. The state's largest employer, semiconductor giant Intel Corp., is already showing signs of recovery.

Mark's company has had to adjust to the economic slump in the Sunset Corridor, delaying construction of three of its office buildings in Sunset Center at Tanasbourne. The Western suburban market has seen office vacancies vault to 41 percent.

He said his firm would move ahead on the office buildings 'when we have clients to move in.'

Still, Mark projected an economic turnaround in either the second or third quarter of this year. Passage of President Bush's economic stimulus package, now before Congress, would boost recovery, he said.

'The ingredients of this recession are much better than the last one,' said Mark, who came to Oregon from New York on his honeymoon and stayed. 'It's not as serious. But business and people need help. We're talking about people, about jobs. We need industry here.'

The downturn would not have waylaid him from the Portland Hilton Hotel expansion, which is expected to open this spring.

'We've always been conservative in our approach,' he said. 'We rarely do spec buildings.'

One way out of the job slump is for city officials to be more aggressive in attracting companies, he said. 'We have to be sure government does the necessary things.'

• Bob Naito

Commercial real estate developer

If there's one thing Bob Naito remembers about 1981, it was the mad scramble to finish McCormick Pier apartments and retire a $3 million construction loan that was tied to the 21.5 percent prime rate.

Once completed, the waterfront apartments were slow to rent.

This slump doesn't seem as bad. Naito and other commercial developers don't feel the same sense of urgency they did then, facing a vastly out-of-control economy that was shutting down construction and sales.

'This is not 1981,' said Naito, who bought his house that year with a 16.5 percent mortgage. 'The market is not in terrible shape.'

Naito, president of Heritage Investment Corp. of Portland, does share a sense of caution. He and his partner, Jim Winkler, have put construction of One Waterfront Place on hold until an anchor tenant can be found for the River District mid-rise.

Like Mark, however, Naito is optimistic the market will see a 'quick turnaround' this year.

'Unless you're Tom Moyer, you don't build buildings without tenants,' he said. 'Apartments you can build based on a market study. You won't see any builders with Class A office buildings on the drawing boards who won't get financing without substantial leasing.'

With interest rates bumping along at historic lows Ñ the prime rate stands at 4.5 percent Ñ Naito said there are opportunities to buy Portland real estate at more reasonable prices. Land prices in the Pearl and River districts have dropped. Several telecom companies that bought property at inflated prices are now trying to unload them at losses.

The Portland area commercial real estate market, with vacancy rates ranging from 9 percent in the central city to 40 percent in the Sunset Corridor, 'just needs solid absorption of existing space,' Naito said.

'If I had a war chest,' he said, 'I'd be buying up property.'

Ñ Kristina Brenneman

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