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New task force named by Governor Kotek has until December to develop a plan to revitalize Portland's stagnating downtown area.

Kotek Wants Plan by December; Wheeler Wants $250 Million and Troopers

Portland’s lagging downtown recovery prompted Governor Kotek to form a task force she will co-chair to identify ways to revive the economy and reputation of the state’s largest city. The Portland Central City Task Force held its first meeting this week behind closed doors.

Afterward, Kotek and co-chair Dan McMillan, CEO of The Standard, told reporters “conversations were candid” and recommendations to revitalize downtown will be presented at the Oregon Business Plan Summit in December. The Governor defended private meetings as a way to encourage those candid conversations.

“Oregonians and Portlanders understand the Central City is an economic and cultural hub and they want it to succeed,” Kotek said. She represented North Portland as a House member.

“Downtown Portland is office-centric and that’s going to have to change,” said McMillan, who predicted more people will eventually live downtown. “We will see a different mix in the future where you have a vibrant mix of the arts, services, some offices as well as residential. That will take some time to change, but we do see this whole downtown core mix changing over time, and I think that’s part of the vision.”

As head of one of the largest employers in downtown, McMillan said it would be a mistake for downtown employers to demand all employees return to work at an office. He suggested the balance between work in the office and remote work should be ironed out company by company.

Willamette Week published a recent story listing 16 downtown properties on a so-called “death list” because of vacancies. The newspaper said nearly one third of Portland’s downtown office space is empty.

At the initial meeting, ECONorthwest provided a comparison of Portland’s post-pandemic recovery to other major cities.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is a member of the task force, made opening remarks that included a request for $250 million from the state to address homelessness and related issues.  Wheeler also asked for 100 Oregon State Troopers to assist Portland police address street crime and for state assistance to convert vacant office space to housing.

Kotek didn’t comment on Wheeler’s requests but said, “One thing we need to remember is that no one government … is going to solve all the challenges facing downtown Portland.”

When Kotek announced formation of the task force earlier this month, she said, “It’s no secret downtown Portland has faced an onslaught of challenges in recent years that have tarnished some of the characteristics that people love about Oregon’s largest city. Growing pains turned into crises, exacerbated by a global pandemic, and now concerns about Portland have become a statewide economic issue. It’s time to look forward, bring together diverse voices and focus our energy on developing concrete and equitable solutions.”

The task force, working in collaboration with the Oregon Business Council, is expected to meet monthly and develop recommendations. There will be five subcommittees to address five subcommittees focused on community safety, livability, housing and homelessness, taxes and the area’s “value proposition.”

Task force members include Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici and State Reps. Janelle Bynum, Rob Nosse and Tawna Sanchez, who co-chairs the legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee. Other members include representatives from Metro, Multnomah County and Port of Portland.

The majority of the task force was drawn from downtown businesses, banks, civic groups and nonprofits. Kotek indicated other community and business leaders will be invited to task force meetings to share their views on issues such as community safety, neighborhood livability, housing, services and taxes.

OHSU-Legacy Merger
OHSU and Legacy Health announced they have signed a non-binding letter of intent to merge. The merged healthcare organization would employ 32,000 people, run 10 hospitals and have facilities at 100 locations in the Portland area and Southwest Washington. The complicated merger requires regulatory review. There also are union issues that must be sorted. Bargaining between OHSU and the Oregon Nurses Association reached an impasse. Before the merger was unveiled.

Joint Office of Homeless Services Audit
An audit of the agency created seven years ago by the City of Portland and Multnomah County to coordinate homeless services has failed to spend voter-approved money to address homelessness. The audit says the agency also has done an inadequate job on contract management, data collection and communication, which has undermined faith in the agency. City and county officials will meet to discuss the audit and the agency’s future.

New Portland City Council Districts
A map dividing Portland into four districts has been approved by an independent commission. Starting next year, Portlanders will use a ranked-choice voting system to elect three city councilors from each district, as provided by a voter-approved overhaul of city government last year. Until now, Portland city council members were elected citywide, which critics said often left less affluent areas of the cities under-represented.