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Leadership Exchange 2010: Postcard from Portland

Leanna Clark //September 28, 2010//

Leadership Exchange 2010: Postcard from Portland

Leanna Clark //September 28, 2010//

Editor’s note: In mid-September, 160 community leaders from Denver traveled to Portland, Ore., for the 2010 Leadership Exchange trip, sponsored by the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation. Over a whirlind three days, executives from business, nonprofit groups and government toured the city and met with some of their counterparts to learn more about the Pacific Northwest city’s success stories and its toughest challenges. The goal was for Denver leaders to bring home new ideas and make connections that can improve the metro Denver region and the state of Colorado. We asked several of the 2010 delegates to share their perspectives on the trip with ColoradoBiz, one of the trip’s sponsors.

When comparing how Portland stacks up against Denver, it’s tempting to revert to the obvious: The former has nearly 300 days of rain each year; the latter, about the same number of days of sunshine. That alone is enough to make many people stop comparing. Before traveling to Portland as part of the Denver Metro Chamber’s Leadership Exchange trip (LEX), my own perception of rain and gloom had clouded my vision of the Portland community, but the LEX trip opened my eyes to a new yardstick-a fresh lens through which to view Portland and how it compares to my native home of Denver.

Portland is doing many things right. As we heard from urban development experts on the trip, it’s a community that excels at “place making.” We saw this in action in the revitalization of downtown areas like the Pearl District, which, in the past 20 years, has been transformed from warehouses, industrial zones and railroad yards to funky galleries, boutiques and upscale restaurants.

However, Portland is not so good at economic development. Portland leaders admit that efforts in this area are disjointed and often duplicative. With no one organization serving as the “regional nerve center” to advocate for business, an “us versus them” attitude has emerged in Portland, with business often at odds with individual citizens. This is not the case in Denver, where the Denver Metro Chamber is the clear bullhorn for the business voice, providing a consistent, focused approach to foster a supportive business climate.

Portland paid dearly for lacking a clear advocate for business when ballot initiatives, soundly passed earlier this year, substantially increased taxes on businesses and on high-income individuals. Denver suffers from Portland’s same, loose ballot initiative process that unnecessarily opens up the state constitution to improperly vetted amendments. Let’s hope our much more highly developed business support infrastructure fares better against our own anti-business ballot initiatives of 60, 61 and 101.

An area in which Portland does speak with one voice is its commitment to sustainability. There is an environmental ethic that seems part of the community’s DNA, embraced by everyone from city leadership to the average morning commuter.

We heard Portland Mayor Sam Adams talk of the city’s commitment to “not use much of what we don’t produce ourselves” and were awed by stats that say Portlanders can spend $1 billion a year on other things because they save this amount on gasoline and car/vehicle upkeep. When we experienced the myriad of transportation options available in Portland-bus, light rail, streetcar, air tram-and witnessed the morning “bike rush hour” with hundreds of tie-flapping commuters eschewing gas pedals in favor of bike pedals, we were on board. Denver has made great progress in this area, with the B-Cycle program, Greenprint Denver, FasTracks and other initiatives. Still, Denverites don’t compare when it comes to Portland’s passion for public transportation and green evangelism.

There is much more to learn from our Portland trip. For me, no take-away is as important as the reminder of how lucky we are to call Denver home. As with any metropolitan area, we face immense challenges. Would it be fun to live in Portland with its funky, weird vibe? Enjoy the dozens of food carts that pepper the city, immerse myself in the bike culture, take a streetcar to shop in the Pearl District, ride the light rail just a few minutes out of downtown just to hop off and backpack in Forest Park? Absolutely. While I returned home with a new appreciation of Portland and all it has to offer, I’ll choose to live among Denver’s sunny skies, mountain views and bustling business climate any day.

I believe that my 160 fellow LEX travelers, all community and business leaders in Denver, learned much about how we can incorporate Portland’s best practice into our Denver decision-making. In the end, we came to the decision that there’s no place like home.
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