“The report of my death was an exaggeration.” — Mark Twain
The headline on a blog post in Pacific Standard magazine a couple months ago got my attention. It read: “Portland is dying.”
The writer, geographer Jim Russell, offered a somewhat more nuanced take: The boom that gave Portland its groove is over and may never come back. The City of Roses has much more competition for creative talent. Even Pittsburgh is thriving by some measures and has a major research university, Carnegie Mellon, which Portland lacks.
It is true that the statistics Russell cites from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics are tepid compared with the same series for Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue. Here, the labor force and employment have both surpassed their old highs, while unemployment, especially in Seattle, has plummeted.
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But these statistics contain a good deal of what economists call “noisy data.” They can be unreliable and prone to cherry picking.
That’s one reason why Portland economist Joe Cortright, with the consulting firm Impresa, had this initial reaction to Russell’s post: “B.S.”
He explained that the recession had hit Metro Portland harder than many other parts of the country. One big reason is Portland’s heavy reliance on durable goods, from Intel and metals, to Freightliner and Precision Castparts. It also remains dependent on lumber and wood products. All these were decimated by the downturn.
”We were in a deeper hole,” Cortright said. ”Since then, we’ve been growing somewhat faster, with a 2.2 or 2.3 percent employment growth rate. Given sluggish recovery nationally, that’s pretty strong.”
In May, the employment increase was 2.3 percent year-over-year compared with 1.6 percent for the entire country.
Amy Vander Vliet, regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department, had similar complaints about Russell’s data.
Take the 20,400, or 1.7 percent, drop in the labor force over the year.
It “could mean a number of things, negative and positive. On the negative side, it could mean that people are dropping out of the labor force because they’re discouraged and have given up looking for work, and/or that an area’s population is declining.”
On the other hand, it could reflect people retiring, choosing to go back to school or no longer needing to look for work. Similar trends are being seen nationally.
Portland’s population continues to grow. For example, the city grew 3.3 percent from 2010 to 2012. In former growth king Phoenix, the increase was only 2.8 percent. Seattle turned in 4.3 percent growth.
“Post-recession brain drain? No,” Vander Vliet said. As of 2011, 34.2 percent of the metro area’s population over age 25 held a bachelor’s degree or higher. In the city, the figure is 42.9 percent. Nationally, 28.5 percent hold a B.A. or higher.
”We’re alive and doing OK by historical standards, and better than OK compared to many other parts of the nation,” Vander Vliet said.
As for being the city ”where young people go to retire,” a line from television’s “Portlandia,” Cortright responded: “Great anecdote, but it doesn’t seem to borne out by the data.”
He did say that the city’s livability, light rail and hip vibe draw educated young people, even those who move there without a job. That may push the unemployment rate higher until they find work.
Taz Loomans, a freelance writer who runs the Blooming Rock blog, is a perfect example of the creative class attracted to Portland. She moved there earlier this year from Phoenix.
”I chose to relocate to Portland because I saw people on the street, restaurants that were full, and more importantly, public spaces that were being used. I also chose Portland because I knew I could easily live here without a car. … there is a lot going on, lots to do and all within fairly affordable reach.”
She says Portland has met mostly her expectations as an energy-filled city blessed with good urban planning.
“I’ve also noticed there is a real sense of community here and people help each other out. There is a sense here of ‘we’re all in this together,’ which is something I didn’t sense when I was back in Phoenix.”
But when I asked her if she planned to stay long term, Loomans was ambivalent. For one thing, she wants a place with more ethnic diversity.
Also, “this place seems to lack a work ethic. There are too many loafers here unfortunately, too many people satisfied with doing service jobs and enjoying the time off, without developing themselves into something more.”
At least some do. Portland prospers on small-scale innovation. In addition to the Silicon Forest, the metro has about 400 firms in athletic gear and sporting goods feeding off Nike and Columbia Sportswear. It also enjoys a strong export footprint.
“Seattle is monster category killers, global,” Cortright said. “Portland creates a proliferation of small things. It’s a different model.”
Rather than slackers, Cortright sees the biggest challenge coming from the state, defunding education and being stuck in a 1950s mindset of transportation (sound familiar?). “There’s no sense of urgency if people are thinking about our economic future,” he said.
Loomans, with a newcomer’s eye, said, ”Portland is a place where weird people can be weird and feel supported in their weirdness. This is a great recipe for a unique lifestyle and a unique economy. But the key is to attract weird people who are motivated and ambitious and want to contribute to society and the economy, not weird people who are satisfied living on the edge of homelessness.”
Either way, this city is far from dying.
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org