Breaking News
More () »

'Beyond maddening': Portland mayor's office was blindsided by REI closure announcement

Records show that REI higher-ups and Mayor Ted Wheeler's office were in communication for months about safety and security issues, but the news came as a surprise.
Credit: KGW
A photo of the REI store in the Pearl District on April 17, 2023.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Although city officials had been in talks with higher-ups at REI for months prior to the company's announcement that it will close its only Portland location, internal communications show that Mayor Ted Wheeler's office was left scrambling to respond when the news dropped in April.

Wheeler's office received an email about the closure late on the morning of April 17. The news went out to REI customers about an hour later.

Emails obtained by KGW through a public records request, first reported on by The Oregonian, show that correspondence between REI and Wheeler's office began months earlier, concerning the company's complaints about crime and public safety at its Pearl District location.

In July 2022, REI applied through the Portland Bureau of Transportation and the city's Bureau of Development Services for a permit to place an LVT surveillance camera trailer in a parking spot out in front of the store.

The city ultimately denied both requests, though not before some confusing bureaucratic back-and-forth. The denials stemmed from the nature of the request, however. While retail stores frequently place mobile security trailers like these in their parking lots, the lots are usually privately owned. REI wanted to site the trailer on public street parking.

The matter seems to have languished until early November, when emails show that REI's store manager began communicating with members of Mayor Ted Wheeler's office to discuss a fix. They began working to set up a meeting between Wheeler and Cameron Janes, REI's chief commercial officer.

Then, on Black Friday, thieves used a stolen car to smash through REI's front doors in order to steal clothing. That seems to have accelerated the company's desire for heightened security.

Credit: KGW
A photo of the REI store in the Pearl District on April 17, 2023.

In December, correspondence indicates that Wheeler and Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell met with Janes, although the outcome of the meeting is unclear.

Over the next several months, Wheeler's office continued to work with REI's store manager in an attempt to connect her with the Pearl District's Business Support Committee and neighboring businesses dealing with some of the same concerns about nearby homeless camps, graffiti and break-ins.

But then, on April 17, Janes sent a letter to Wheeler's office announcing that REI would be leaving the Pearl District in early 2024 at the end of their lease. He indicated that he'd already briefed employees, and the news went public within the hour.

"Last December, our Portland store manager and I met with you and Chief Lovell to discuss our concerns about the impact to our business and employees due to regional crime," Janes wrote. "Our meeting was prompted by a stolen car being driven through our store entrance resulting in significant damage and burglary of our store during non-operating hours."

RELATED: Downtown Portland's resemblance to a dead mall

Throughout 2022, Janes said, REI spent more than $800,000 on new security measures. Regardless, they still experienced 10 burglaries — recording the highest number of break-ins and thefts in two decades.

As in the company's letter to the public, Janes added after discussing the issues with theft that REI had outgrown its longtime Portland location and had been unable to "address issues" with the landlord.

"We are aware of your city-wide priority for community safety and initiatives to address crime, homelessness and more," Janes continued. "However, we haven’t seen substantial progress to address the city’s challenges to give us the confidence to invest in another long-term lease. Our Real Estate and Stores teams are currently assessing what a long-term solution might be for the region. That said, we do not believe a store in the city of Portland will be possible in the near term."

There's no indication from internal communications that the city knew REI's announcement was coming.

Once the message to REI customers went out, Wheeler's staff scrambled to draft a statement highlighting that they'd worked closely with REI to address their complaints, doing "targeted retail missions, rapid response camp removals, etc." They also quickly tried to set up another meeting with Janes to discuss the announcement.

Text messages between members of Wheeler's team, provided in response to the public records request, demonstrate their frustration with the news. One of the text messages said the idea that Wheeler's office did nothing to help REI was "beyond maddening." 

That same day, Wheeler's office sent an official response to Janes' letter, cataloguing his office's personal attention to the security issues at REI over the previous months.

"My staff also intervened on your behalf with the Portland Bureau of Transportation to permit your use of a conspicuous security camera system near your loading dock to deter criminal activity in the area," Wheeler's statement reads. "However, I know that’s not enough. We are committed to finding more creative solutions to address your immediate needs."

The second half of the letter ran through some of public officials' frequent complaints about common retail security policies — theft incidents going unreported to police, "hands-off" security guard policies and policies that prevent cooperation in prosecutions.

In subsequent communications with Wheeler's staff, Janes reiterated that REI would not be talked out of leaving the Pearl District location, although he seemed open to discussion of another Portland location under the right circumstances.

"I do want to set the expectation that for the reasons articulated in my email earlier today the likelihood of us staying in our current location in downtown Portland is essentially zero," Janes said. "So, if we engage in discussions we should be discussing/thinking about longer-term ideas and opportunities for bringing back REI to Portland vs. solving for maintaining our presence in our current location. Otherwise, I don’t think it would be a productive conversation."

Emails suggest that Wheeler and Janes were trying to connect for calls on April 18 or 19, though there was no correspondence covering the outcome.

On April 20, one member of Wheeler's staff shared an Oregon Business article about the REI closure, noting the "interesting union-busting take." Oregon Business spoke with one former and one current employee of REI's Portland location, both of whom said that employees had been pushing for unionization in recent months.

Before You Leave, Check This Out