Trust Issues 

Black Neighbors Wary of More "Economic Development"

THE PORTLAND Development Commission (PDC) faces a struggle to convince African American neighbors in North and Northeast Portland that its latest effort to economically develop the area won't result in further gentrification.

PDC held the first of 11 meetings with its community advisory committee for the North/Northeast Economic Development Initiative on Wednesday, August 19, at the recently renovated Billy Webb Elks Lodge on N Tillamook—a venue full of historical significance in the African American neighborhood. Built in the early 1900s, the building was once known as the Colored YWCA, and remains one of the few remaining black-owned buildings in the district, nine square blocks of which were razed in the 1960s under a PDC urban renewal initiative to make way for Legacy Emanuel Hospital.

Close by, African Americans have seen young whites move into the Mississippi and Alberta areas to regenerate the areas as arts districts over the last decade, taking advantage of PDC dollars to improve their storefronts and buying up cheap residential real estate with private dollars, thereby raising it above the affordability of historic residents.

Most recently, Mayor Sam Adams suggested and then abandoned a hasty plan to use millions of Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal dollars to fund the destruction of Memorial Coliseum to make way for a Minor League Baseball stadium. As a consequence, trust is at a premium in this new process.

The new committee aims to give neighbors the opportunity to weigh in on the future use of hundreds of millions of dollars of urban renewal money in two North and Northeast urban renewal areas: Interstate Corridor, and the Oregon Convention Center, which were originally created in 2000 and 1989 respectively. But committee members spent much of the meeting expressing frustration at the failed efforts of the two urban renewal areas to halt gentrification and bring quality jobs to existing community members, to date.

"We have had years of trying to do all this, but what we have found is how hard it is," said real estate broker Walter Valenta, co-chair of the Interstate Urban Renewal Area. "How do we stop gentrification? How do we keep people in their homes? It's structurally and politically hard for PDC to do that."

"Only 19 percent have a college degree in these areas compared to 35 percent citywide," said Sarah Carlin Ames from the Portland Public School Board, suggesting PDC still hasn't managed to bring an influx of educational achievement to the area along with its development dollars.

"We haven't had anything more than a janitor" from PDC's job creation efforts, said neighbor Faye Burch.

"Will this cause more gentrification of seniors?" asked Roy Jay, from the African American Chamber of Commerce. "As developers come here looking for tax breaks, you tell me what are you going to do to employ people who are already here?"

A facilitator earnestly took notes, writing "what about seniors?" on a sheet of paper as Jay spoke. PDC Commissioner Charles Wilhoite promised, over an intermittently functioning PA system in the building's sultry 95-degree heat, to address all the committee members' concerns over the coming weeks. Attendees were even encouraged to Twitter about the meeting, although nobody did. The following day on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, African American delicatessen owner James Posey remained unconvinced by the committee's attempts to engage people like him in the process.

"This is typical of PDC to invest a lot of energy on the front end but not do any follow up later," says Posey, who opened the E-Mat Café, an internet café and laundromat, on the street back in 2000. "It sounds like PDC is Santa Claus and they're going around sprinkling sugarplums."

Posey says he hasn't made a dime on his business since it opened, and that he's been subsidizing it with money from his construction contracts in the meantime. He wants to see PDC reward business owners like him who have stuck it out in the area, rather than just bend over backward to lure new employers from elsewhere using Portlanders' tax dollars as an incentive.

Posey spoke up during the public comment phase of the previous night's meeting, saying PDC employees have no incentives to look after the interests of poor African Americans in North and Northeast Portland.

"You're not monitoring these dollars, there are no checks, and these are very scarce dollars," he said. "I would encourage you all to reach inside yourselves and think about these issues, not just have meeting after meeting after meeting."

The next meeting is scheduled for September 16, with PDC expected to adopt a final report from the group next March.

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