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Many of downtown Portland's biggest companies plan to bring employees back this summer

"There’s still problems, let's not pretend there's not. But the reality is we’re turning a corner and the city is reopening and reviving and people are coming back."

PORTLAND, Ore. — Despite downtown's faults, some of its biggest employers plan to welcome workers back into their buildings. Thousands of employees have already started heading to the office.

During lunchtime on a sunny spring Friday in downtown Portland, people were out walking, standing in line for food carts and talking to coworkers.

"It's nice to kind of see life come back online down here, you know, and I think that’s nice to feel that sense of community," Aryn Phillips, who works at an architecture and engineering firm downtown, said.

Downtown's lunch rush isn't what it once was. 

Parts of town still feel abandoned and a good portion of jobs downtown disappeared.

Companies have left the city center as well. Data from commercial real estate company CBRE shows office vacancy rates went from around 14% in 2019 to almost 20% in the first part of this year.

"It was a ghost town here for quite some time and having to deal with protesters," Ron Villanueva, who works at the World Trade Center, said.

Plywood layers many windows, graffiti is scrawled on concrete, tents line sidewalks and "for lease" signs speckle storefronts. But that hasn't discouraged big companies from planning a phased return to work.

"There’s still problems, let's not pretend there's not," Portland Business Alliance president and CEO Andrew Hoan said. "But the reality is we’re turning a corner and the city is reopening and reviving and people are coming back to downtown."

"You're seeing the first waves of 100,000 employees who used to come into downtown starting to come to the center city again," Hoan added.

That includes employees like Phillips, who just recently started working from the office a couple days a week. 

"I just got my last shot last week so I am close to being fully vaccinated," Phillips said. "The social interaction is really helpful, being able to see coworkers and talk to face-to-face about projects and collaborate."

Downtown Portland's largest employers plan to bring people back into their buildings by fall. Most will be in a hybrid model, like Cambia Health Solutions. 

The company plans to start its return to office on Sept. 15. Its 1,700 employees' schedules will vary: some will be in the office a few days a week, some will be there a few days a month, others will be full-time in the building or fully remote.

Portland-based law firm Stoel Rives' 270 employees will mostly come back full-time to its Park Avenue West office. 

"We have an incredibly strong and collaborative culture at the firm so being there in person is a really important component of that," Stoel Rives' Portland office co-managing partner Penny Serrurier said.

When Multnomah County moved to lower risk, the firm was one of the first large companies to start welcoming workers back. 

"We've been part of the downtown business community for over 130 years. So we're not going away. And I know there's a lot of businesses downtown who feel the same way we do. We are committed to the core and committed to stay," Serrurier said.

"Businesses want to know the basic services the city and county promise, that those will be delivered," Hoan told KGW. "There’s widespread dissatisfaction, this is not a secret, and we’ve been very direct. What we are encouraged by is that the response to that directness, which we believe is broadly aligned with how every Portlander feels: they want the city to look good and be accessible and open to everyone. Those concerns have been responded to."

Hoan believes the city and county have begun to fund and allocate resources to cleanliness and safety in Portland. 

People returning to work is a welcome sight for those who couldn't work remote.

"I'm happy to see everything coming back," Villanueva said. "It'll help out the businesses, that's for sure. We're going to get through all this."

As office workers pour in to the core, they spend money at local downtown businesses and inject money into the economy, helping re-energize and heal Portland. 

The more office workers return downtown, the more businesses in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic will peel off the plywood and reopen. That will also help thwart vandalism.

"Revitalizing downtown is going to be a collaborative public-private effort. Businesses have to bring employees back downtown, the government has to bring their employees back down," Surrierer told KGW.

And that revitalization is happening slowly but surely.

"We've made some progress in the last couple months but there's a long way to go," Surrierer said.

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