By Andrew Wilkins
The non-profit that’s helped develop Portland’s neighborhood business districts for nearly 30 years has found a new home here in SE.
Portland’s 50 unique business districts have access to grants, trainings, and technical assistance provided by Venture Portland, according to Brian Alfano, president of Venture Portland’s board.
The previous location in the Rose Quarter was adequate for the staff, but Alfano said it didn’t work for the monthly 30-member board meeting and other regular committee meetings. The organization’s new location is at SE 11th and Madison.
“We have a lot of members in that area, the location really butts up to a handful of our business districts,” Alfano said.
They offer trainings on hosting a street fair, marketing a business district, increasing membership, and the role of each association leadership position, among others. Grants have helped business districts improve websites, host events, and print maps. Since 1995, $1.1 million has funded over 400 projects, leveraging more than $3.47 million in private investment.
Along with technical assistance, Alfano said the organization also weighs in on political issues that impact businesses. He gave the recent street fee as an example.
“We helped businesses — especially small businesses — create a cohesive voice,” because the impact on small businesses wasn’t given proper consideration, he said. “So we gave some testimony and helped provide resources to small businesses: Here’s what you need to have your voice heard.”
Venture Portland helped organize a town hall meeting on the issue in mid-June, Alfano said. After significant opposition from the public, the Portland City Council withdrew the original proposal and is reworking its plan to fund a backlog of street maintenance.
Over the years, the non-profit’s members have been involved with City planning, and Alfano said they absolutely will continue to participate in the process. The organization receives funding from the Portland Development Commission, and Alfano said it is part of its Neighborhood Economic Development Strategy.
Until 2011, Venture Portland was known as the Alliance of Portland Neighborhood Business Associations.
The development of SE Division has changed the business district significantly, and the Division Clinton Business Association has evolved as well, said Todd Cleek, association president. Three new board members were added, and the organization is now more business focused — allowing the neighborhood associations to represent the residents in the area.
During the construction’s planning, the business association hosted conversations about the development of Division St., Cleek said, and if parking would be included in new apartments.
Venture Portland has been extremely supportive of the business district, Cleek said, adding that they’ve received grants to survey the district and upgrade the website. He also said their involvement in the street fee discussions was important for his members.
“They got that information to us and we got it to our members, and that prevented city from passing something in a cursory manner that would unduly burden business owners.”
The Division Clinton Business Association has recently hired a marketing director, Cleek said. The marketing director is going to start visiting neighborhood businesses, he said, to find out how things are going in the area and how the association can help.
The weather was perfect for July’s Division Clinton Street Fair, and Cleek said there was a huge crowd for the parade through the district.
Several bands entertained the crowd afterwards, and he said he appreciated all the volunteer effort and how gracefully the Portland Police Bureau managed the parade without having to completely block off Division and Clinton.
Cleek encouraged business owners to get involved with their district association.
“When you see banner advertising for a district or an event, people should know that has come together because of volunteer energy,” Cleek said, inviting the community to appreciate and participate in what’s being organized. “If you have energy and ideas we’d love to have you come see us.”
Not all business districts have that same level of representation, Alfano said. It’s harder to find volunteers from the larger corporate businesses located in the NW 23rd area, he said.
Jen Smith has worked at Presents of Mind on Hawthorne Ave. for six years. The gift shop has been in business for 24 years, as she said Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association has grown to be a world-renowned business district. She’s been to many business association meetings, and has seen nothing but positive things come from the store’s involvement in the organization.
The association has brought together businesses, residents, and the PPB to address problems in the district, like transients and drug dealing, as well as help the district develop. The association organizes holiday events and marketing, things she said that keep the district one of the most prominent in the city.
Hawthorne is one of the original — and most successful — business districts in Portland, Alfano said, but not every one will develop in exactly the same way. The Hawthorne Business District is still innovating, he said. Just three years ago it won a grant to publish an annual sustainable walking map, that Alfano said is motivating businesses to adopt more ecologically-friendly business practices.
Each district is different, Alfano said, and business leaders should step back and take a look at what makes it special as it plans its future.
Nearly a quarter of a million jobs in 19,000 businesses are represented by Venture Portland’s members, Alfano said, and it’s their job to help them thrive.