Until a year ago, when he became executive director of Portland's City Club, Sam Adams had spent 20 year with City Hall as his business mailing address—starting in 1992 as a 29-year-old chief of staff to Mayor Vera Katz, then as a one-term city councilmember and, finally, from 2009 through 2012, as a controversial yet beloved one-term mayor.
During those years, Portland grew from a sleepy second-tier West Coast city into a robust economic Cinderella story, blossoming from a somewhat dreary port town with a few white-linen restaurants and a handful of old-money timber and steel families into a diverse and nimble economy of sportswear companies, ad executives, restaurant entrepreneurs and successful rock stars, with a growing young population; an A+ example of how the "creative class" can spur on a local economy. Adams deserves his share of accolades for that success.
Even through the recent recession, which saddled Adams' tenure as mayor, Portland continued to grow in economic strength and popularity, egged on by quirky TV shows like "Grimm" (in which Adams occasionally stars as himself) and gently lampooned in "Portlandia" (in which Adams plays the mayor's assistant). A recent Atlantic magazine article, "Weird Is Good: What Portland's Economy Can Teach Every City in the World," outlines how that city's economy grew so powerfully over the past decade.
On Thursday, Adams will present to Bend City Club. Last week, Adams sat down for an interview with the Source in his offices in Portland, directly across from a pod of 50 or so food carts. Confidently smart, disarmingly friendly and looking relaxed, Adams was wearing jeans and a blue-white checked button-down.
You're coming to Bend. Can you share what's your favorite beer.
Lagers. I'm a lager guy.
Because of the name . . .
No, no, no. Lately I've really started to like Fort George. When I was in Astoria I got to sample all their beers. Deschutes is also right up there for me.
How do you describe your leadership style?
Enthusiastic, partner-oriented and I don't give up.
In the Atlantic article, there is an assertion that the economy must be more than just selling microbrews to each other. But I think that is Bend's business plan.
(Laughs) It is selling people outside of Bend—and outside of Oregon—Bend's great micro-brews. It is about having the ambition to export the proverbial microbrew. It is not simply settling selling to each other; that doesn't bring in new wealth. Bend, or Portland, only selling coffee and microbrews to each other just moves the money around. It keeps some people employed, but not to the full potential that only comes with export. When you say "export," a lot of folk think Japan or Europe, but any exports outside the city or the state bring prosperity.
All that is great, but one of the advantages of Portland is that it is, well, a port city. Bend is isolated.
Sure, but the other export is a strategic import; by that I mean, tourism. Tourism is a way to bring wealth to Central Oregon. Having a smart strategy to bring in money from Portland—and beyond—is inbound exporting. They bring their money to you.
It is radical common sense. Look at, "Where are we in terms of prosperity? What are our genuinely authentic global strengths? And, how do we protect and improve upon those?" Then align civic structures and business around those strengths.
But there is an irony there: One of Bend's strengths is its beauty and lifestyle. But that business plan didn't turn out so well last decade. It fueled a housing and construction boom and bust.
That speaks to the other aspect of this: You need diversity. Keep your strength, nurture it, but also look to expand into other economic pillars. It is an attractive city. It can get people to come here. But once they have invested their big-city money, once here you need to ask, what do we do next?
Let's say you were elected mayor of Bend. . .
. . .what would be your first two measures to build the economy?
I'm sure they already are doing it: Figure out how can we compete, and how do we diversify. The fact Bend attracts so much wealth, find out how to activate it. And civic engagement.
Right. That's a great point, but Bend is not Portland. This economic development depends on leadership, and how do you develop that when the mayor and city council are volunteers, and don't necessarily have the same political muscle?
The obvious answer is coalition—team your business community with government, and with nonprofits, like City Club. Given the limitations of everyone's time, focus on a few things and go after them with a concerted effort. I get excited when the private sector gets together with the public sector, and makes a plan, and find a way forward.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic for economic growth?
I'm not an expert on Central Oregon enough to answer that. I don't purport to know anything, but I can share what I've learned. We have to work at being economically successful. It is not just going to come to us without effort as it may if you are a big population center. Portland is not a big enough crossroads for the world to come to us. Bend the same. We have to be aggressive. We have to box above our weight.
What also is at risk is not paying attention to some fundamental facts, like we have economic inequity in this region that has gotten worse over the last 10 years, not better. Our level of poverty, working poor are absolutely too high. Our quality of life is not matched by a quality of economy.
City Club of Central Oregon with Sam Adams
"Oregon, Portlandia and the Economics of Weird"
11:30 am-1pm. Thurs., Aug. 15
St Charles Center for Health and Learning
2500 NE Neff Rd