PORTLAND, Ore. — When you think about a mall, its success is often measured in the number of stores open and operating. If the mall is doing poorly, they close — and the more closed storefronts, the worse the perception of the "health" and prosperity of the mall.
The mall can function as something of an analogy for thinking about downtown Portland, even if the latter is at a much larger scale. The more businesses that thrive downtown, the better for the whole. The more that suffer, the worse.
That conjures up the latest downtown business bombshell that broke this week. Outdoor retailer REI wrote in an email to customers that its longtime store in the Pearl District will close when its lease comes up at the end of February next year.
It's the only REI store in the Portland city limits, and it's been serving the area for nearly two decades. The company said that last year, even with increased security, they dealt with the highest number of break-ins and thefts since they opened the store.
The company also said that it had "outgrown" the current space and could not reach a deal with the landlord to address the issues. So they're moving on out.
It isn't entirely about crime and safety, since REI cited the issues with the current landlord — but in the company's statement to customers and the media, they led with the break-ins and theft and not the real estate drama.
'They're gonna have to do something, right?'
The Story heard from a marketing professor at Portland State University who said that the REI announcement will be a big factor for other retail stores that may be considering downtown Portland for their next locations.
"You're really betting on the future when you invest into a retail store," said Professor Thomas Gillpatrick. "So what this is really sending a message to all of us in Portland, is Portland looks not as attractive as we have been in the past."
The owner of another downtown business echoed a theme of messages that The Story's viewers often send in when referencing downtown Portland.
"Whether you're very conservative or very liberal, at some point everybody just gets fed up," said Chris Ham, manager of Oregon's Finest marijuana dispensary. "At some point they're gonna have to do something, right? It's going to reach a fever pitch... gotta do something about it."
So, what is being done about it? Mayor Ted Wheeler's office said in a Monday statement that his staff and Portland Police Bureau leadership have met with REI officials over the space of "several months," trying to collaborate on reducing crime around the store. The statement ended with this:
"Mayor Wheeler is committed to further supporting REI to help ensure we retain their business in Portland and help them succeed. All options are on the table as we explore paths forward."
It may seem a little late to be putting those options on the table now. Many viewers of The Story, reacting to the REI news, said that they were fed up with city leadership and the state of downtown:
"Yeah, this is a travesty. Our mayor has done nothing. His response to everything is, 'We've been working with them.' What have you been doing? What have you been working?" said Eric. "I mean, working is one thing, but getting results is another. I've seen nothing from him, nothing. All these businesses are folding up, leaving, moving on and just plain going out of business and he has done not one thing to help prevent this from happening. He's making the problem worse."
"What will it take for our elected officials to take concrete action to improve downtown and bring back the vital city I moved to in 1999?" said Cathy. "I will not go into downtown Portland anymore, due to the open-air drug use, the ever-present graffiti and trash, the people passed (out) on the sidewalks, and the general sense of lawlessness that pervades downtown. We can't wait several years to see results; something needs to change right NOW."
"Another one bites the dust .. call attention to the impact the lack of action on the part or our city leaders is having on the downtown community," said Mike. "Instead of improving, things just seem to be getting worse. I expect this is not the last we will hear of businesses leaving the Pearl and Portland."
Back at REI, it's worth nothing that the message decorating the store window feels a little different in the current context. It says, "Better is out there" — of course referring to the outdoors. Now, for company leadership, that seems to mean outside of Portland.
Welcome down to Stumptown, we've got broken panes
There is a business that has decided to open a new location in Portland this month. Shake Shack already has a location in Beaverton's Cedar Hills area, but the new spot along West Burnside across from Powell's Books is set to open next Monday.
Many people are excited about the new spot for burgers, fries and the titular shakes — but not everyone. Last night, a KGW crew noticed that there is already a boarded-up window at the brand new restaurant, even before the place had a chance to open.
Portland police said that the vandalism happened earlier this week. Whoever did it wasn't looking for a burger, because they apparently didn't go inside — they simply busted a window a moved along.
To paraphrase "The Wizard of Oz," Shake Shack isn't in Cedar Hills anymore, and they've received the customary "welcome" to downtown Portland.
But it isn't retailers feeling the weight of downtown Portland's woes. Arts organizations say that they're also struggling to stay afloat. The Story contacted several performing arts companies. While they said the pandemic was a trial, preventing them from putting on performances, reopening hasn't allowed them to bounce all the way back. Audience numbers are declining and it's threatening their future in Portland.
"The greatest threat to the Oregon Symphony today is in fact the perception that downtown is unsafe," said Scott Showalter, CEO of the Oregon Symphony. "It's the number one reason by far for people holding back from coming to live performances."
"You start to say, 'Well this is ... is it ever going to surmise to the old days,' so to speak, whatever that might be," said Kirk Mouser, artistic director for Stumptown Stages. "It was always difficult to produce the arts but now we're in a whole new realm of challenges and difficulties."
The plight of Oregon's performing arts companies is a larger issue, something The Story plans to dive into next week.
Shut down in secrecy
Opening late last year, the Behavioral Health Resource Center on Southwest Park Avenue was supposed to be an integral part of Multnomah County's efforts to address homelessness and addiction in downtown Portland. It's a day center where people living on the streets can access basic needs and hopefully get connected with help.
Late last month, the BHRC abruptly shut down. County officials originally said that the staff there needed more training to deal with the mental illness-related behaviors and overdoses they were meeting with on a daily basis.
As it turns out, that was only a small part of the truth. There was more going on, and Multnomah County decided the public shouldn't know until after the fact.
The county learned of allegations that contracted workers were having inappropriate relationships with one another, and that a contracted worker was using drugs on the job.
To the extent that the allegations were true, the county found that no government employees or homeless clients were involved — it all had to do with the three companies contracted to run the place. Those were the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon, which operates the day center; security guard firm DPI Security; and custodial services company Northwest Success.
It began the night of March 29, when a manager with the Multnomah County Health Department received the complaint. The next day, the county called each of the contractors to figure out what was going on. And they shut down the center.
On April 7, the county said, a DPI Security employee admitted to using cocaine and marijuana while on the job — and not in the presence of any homeless clients. That person was fired.
So far, the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon reports that the allegations of any inappropriate relationships were unfounded, at least within their ranks. The county did not mention any developments along those lines with the other contractors.
While the center was closed, the county said that it made building improvements — installing more security cameras inside, upgrading a few rooms and removing graffiti. The BHRC reopened this week with a reduced capacity.
Staff at the day center did receive 90 hours of additional training on the kind of situations that they encounter, which was the stated reason for why the center closed in the first place.
The county offered several statements about why they chose not to alert the public about the allegations that precipitated the shutdown.
"Because of the nature of the allegations, the County did not disclose the details of the March 29 complaint publicly to preserve the integrity of the investigations and to ensure the allegations could be credibly reviewed," a written statement from the county reads.
"I understand the public's right to know is if something truly had happened that was egregious that we somehow were not disclosing," added Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, county communications director. "But that is not the case. There were broad allegations made of mostly about relationships between people — consenting adult relationships."
"Closing the Resource Center was a difficult but necessary step to get to the heart of this complaint, resolve any issues, and set expectations for the high level of service we expect from our contractors going forward," said County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson.