Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Great Recession Bust-Towns: Portland

The Las Vegas economy is in tatters and people are leaving in droves. By now, that shouldn't be news. However, the woes in Portland (Oregon) might surprise a few urbanists and other boosters:

The ECONorthwest analysis shows that in the early 1970s Portland-metro’s wages were similar to those in Seattle, Denver and Minneapolis metros. But since then the metro areas have diverged on average wages. Today Portland-metro wages are 4 percent below the national average for all metropolitan areas, 10 percent below Minneapolis-metro, 13 percent below Denver-metro and 17 percent below Seattle-metro. Currently, Portland-metro wages are more like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis metros than they are like Seattle, Denver, or Minneapolis metros.

"The critical factor you need to pay attention to is the educational level of your population," said Cortright, who compares the percentage of metro-area adults who have college degrees or more. "All of the comparative metros have higher levels of educational attainment than Portland."

And equating Portland with Cleveland? "I don't buy that at all," Cortright said. Cleveland is a bad comparison because the city's population has shrunk by more than half since 1950, he said, and holds a relatively small share of its regional economy.

Cortright can spin the study any way he likes. Invoking the Mistake on the Lake, Shittsburgh, or Indianoplace is intended to shock the audience. After all, this is a debate about economic policy. But falling behind the likes of Seattle, Denver and Minneapolis should be the crux of the discussion. The report indicates that Portland wages were, in 1970, to comparable to those cities with "higher levels of educational attainment". What went wrong?

Seattle, Duy said, has Bill Gates, the aircraft industry and the defense sector. Portland had high-tech manufacturing, which boosted the area's economy from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s.

But tech went bust and many factories moved offshore.

"We didn't have an industry to compensate," Duy said.

Trotting out Seattle for a Portland audience is lot like sticking it to the old guard in Cleveland with stories about Pittsburgh's success. There's a lot of needling going on between adversaries. This isn't an honest look at the difficulties Portland is facing. All I see is bluster and bombast, spelling trouble for the Shangri-La of the Pacific Northwest.

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