Seattle isn't the only city in the Northwest that's on fire. Portland has enjoyed one of the nation's strongest metro expansions in recent years. Keeping it weird is tougher.

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Two years ago, Willamette Week proclaimed that “old Portland” was dead. In its place, it now turns out, is a new Portland with economic performance that’s almost impressive as Seattle. Maybe PDX gets extra points for developing a more diverse economy because it lacks our abundant corporate headquarters, especially Amazon.

“Over a decade, Portland’s high-wage job growth, household income gains, and rising levels of educational attainment have been transformational. Portland has pulled away from its former economic peers” among large U.S. metro areas, writes Josh Lehner, an economist in the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. Among those “former” peers (in GDP) are Denver, Baltimore and St. Louis. The decade of change has left Portland:

  • Ranking fifthbest in both high-wage job growth and increases in educational attainment.
  • Forty percent of Portland’s working-age population holds a college degree, a 6 percentage point increase over the decade that is more than twice the typical gain.
  • The metro’s poverty rate is lower than before the Great Recession.
  • While the typical large metro has not recovered its losses, Portland’s median household income is now nearly 9 percent higher than before the Great Recession, adjusted for inflation. This is the fourth best increase among metros since 2007.
  • Portland now has the 19th highest median household income among the large metros. In 2007 Portland ranked 32nd highest income.
  • Like Seattle, it is attracting coveted high-skilled young workers.

“The region’s high quality of life and strong economic foundation drive some of this growth,” Lehner writes. “However, Portland’s most important strength is its ability to attract and retain talent. Only a few select metros see such strong migration rates among young college graduates. Portland is right there with the Bay Area, Denver, Raleigh, Seattle, and Washington D.C.”

As in Seattle, this has come with some dislocations and discontents. Portland was atop the nation in housing price increases before being muscled out of the way by Seattle. It had under-built housing before the downturn. That’s changing on the apartment front, which should help with affordability, although homeownership “remains a huge challenge,” Lehner writes. Also, although lower-income households are moving from the pricey core to the suburbs, they are not leaving the region.

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No, this doesn’t make Portland a contender for Amazon HQ2. Although it has many of the assets Amazon says it wants, it is in the same time zone as the company’s home base and may not be properly “business friendly.” But who knows? I’ve been wrong before (“Frequently wrong but never in doubt” is the columnist’s credo).

What’s undeniable is that PDX has made impressive gains in a recovery that has proved very uneven nationally. Like Seattle, it may be a “blue city hellhole,” but that seems to be the prescription for success.


Today’s Econ Haiku:

The tax overhaul

It’s another heavy lift

Gang couldn’t shoot straight