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'There's a lot of work to do right now': Downtown Portland businesses eye return of shoppers

Business leaders say foot traffic around downtown is slow to return, but they are optimistic about what the summer will bring.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Gregory Steinline spent Wednesday afternoon doing what he does most every day: pushing his infant son in a stroller on a walk through downtown Portland. 

When we met Steinline, he was walking past several people camping on sidewalks on his way to an area with retail shops. He may not have realized it at the time, but Steinline is exactly what the downtown Portland business community is wishing for the most right now: foot traffic.

“If you're in a certain area [of downtown], it's nice and calm and collected,” said Steinline, who lives in the Pearl District. “And certain areas are ‘different,’ you know. For the most part, I like it."

Accepting that whole picture is what many business leaders believe will enable the good parts of downtown to eventually outweigh the frustrating parts— things like street camping, garbage and vandalism. 

Between those deterrents and the pandemic, a lot of people are still avoiding downtown Portland, said Vanessa Sturgeon, president and CEO of TMT Development. The company owns several downtown properties including the Fox Tower.

“Downtown is ready to have you back,” said Sturgeon. “So when people are ready, downtown is ready to reopen.”

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Sturgeon said there are promising signs of change: Businesses are once again signing leases for vacant downtown spaces and employees returning to downtown offices. She also pointed to resources aimed at addressing the homeless crisis, like a $2.4 billion housing services measure.

“That funding is starting to roll in and it's time to forget the idea of small incremental change and start to really think big,” said Sturgeon.

Other signs show that things are slow to change. A lot of open downtown businesses are keeping their windows boarded up. For many would-be shoppers, the optics send a mixed message that lead to questions: is downtown safe? Why won't they take the boards down? Sturgeon believes the answer has many layers.

“Visitor traffic is way down and that hasn't come back,” said Sturgeon. “Until it does, until there are people with their eyes on the streets at all times and people aren't feeling as emboldened to commit acts of vandalism, then people are probably going to have to wait [to take down the boards]. “They've often times replaced those windows multiple times on their own dime.”

Among the businesses hoping for increased downtown foot traffic are the Ankeny West Food Carts off West Burnside. The group Friends of Green Loop opened the pod in July 2021.

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“There's a lot of work to do right now and there's a lot of challenges down there,” said Keith Jones, executive director for Friends of Green Loop.

Jones is looking ahead to the summer when Portland will once again host in-person events like the Waterfront Blues Festival and Rose Festival parades. He hopes the city will help visitors know what downtown has to offer.

"We need to improve the connectivity of these areas of activity that are going on right now,” said Jones. “Like hey, three more blocks and you're going to hit this.”

It's all important to Gregory Steinline. He hopes to one day open a brick-and-mortar business in downtown. For now, it's one step at a time to help everyone else.

“We flourish, businesses will flourish,” said Steinline.

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