30 Dec

Portland’s top food city title rests on a policy recipe that could change

Portland’s Christmas present got delivered a few days early this year.

In fact, you could say we got served.

Last week, The Washington Post, after a year-long, cross-country, multi-million-calorie survey, pronounced Portland the top food city in the country. In the eat-off, we topped runners-up San Francisco and New Orleans, which is like outdoing Los Angeles in movie stars or Beijing in pollution.

We’d make an acceptance speech, but you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full.

The Post was impressed by how seriously Portland takes breakfast – although everyone knows it’s the most important meal of the day – and, since its critic visited in summer, our spectacular ingredients. His visit to the Saturday farmer’s market at Portland State seemed almost a life-changing moment.

And, of course, he was struck by the local attitude, noting “Few American cities do quirk as deliciously as this one,” which is probably a better municipal slogan than “Keep Portland Weird.”

Over the past 30 years – and there was a time when Portland, despite being located at the intersection of Dungeness crab and fresh berries, was not a particularly interesting place to eat – there has indeed been an explosion of both imagination and diner responsiveness, changing our food scene as dramatically as the invention of the food cart pod.
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But the dazzling Portland food scene has also been driven by other elements, aspects that people might not think of when they’re walking the streets waiting for their device to vibrate to say their brunch table is ready. Our restaurant renaissance has been driven not only by our attitudes but by our atmosphere, and some of that atmosphere might be changing right beneath our tables.

Portland’s great advantage has always been not only its ingredients and its ingenuity, but its affordability. Chefs have come here from New York, San Francisco and Seattle not just for the hazelnuts, but because it was possible to open a restaurant here without being a hedge fund manager’s hobby. (It was even possible to be a chef here and own a house, something difficult to imagine within 50 miles of downtown San Francisco.) Around here, a restaurant could pay its rent without charging $35 an entrée, a flexibility unimaginable in more tech startup-ridden zip codes.

And somehow, Portland concepts like Pok Pok, Stumptown and Little Big Burger are now expanding to those other places, if sometimes with a change of ownership.

Portland’s affordability, of course, is now eroding, along with the chances of finding an available apartment. Even with our emerging alternative restaurant development plan – food cart to storefront – there might be fewer opportunities for national-level innovation.

(On the other hand, the impossibility zone of home ownership around San Francisco has now widened to 100 miles.)

We’ve also held to a policy maintaining the quality and availability of ingredients: the urban growth boundary. Unlike many places, Oregon has insisted on preserving its farmland; you can’t rely on climate for everything, especially these days. Portland has indeed drawn all kinds of people to all parts of the food process, giving us farmer’s markets where you can buy kale grown by a liberal arts major. But it’s an intentional policy decision that causes hillsides south and west of Portland to grow pinot noir grapes instead of condominiums, and it’s a policy that needs to be constantly reaffirmed.

Our ingredients can be threatened in other ways. What should be the peak season of Dungeness crab – the landmark Northwestern seafood, the favorite of James Beard, the landmark Northwestern food monument – is currently postponed all along the West Coast, due to a toxic condition caused by unduly warm ocean waters. Unless someone turns down the heat in the ocean, this could happen some more.

Even for the top food city in the country, ingredients and opportunities need to be protected and encouraged.

And, even if our food scene is currently awash in national media love, our bounty needs to be showcased, for the world and for us.

Ron Paul, the prominent Portland food figure who died last week, spent the last decade and more promoting the James Beard Public Market, now taking exciting imaginative shape as a downtown riverside space and statement displaying the richness of our food world. It’s a complicated project, with a multi-ingredient financial recipe, but it would not only enrich our eating experience, it would be a world-class showcase for everything we treasure about Oregon’s menu.

And as Ron Paul told us for years, and The Washington Post reminded us last week, we have a lot to showcase.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/27/15.

30 Dec

Legislature could ward off Armageddon, and make some tax progress

Oregon being Oregon, we may not have a close presidential battle next year, even if Donald Trump is the White House choice of the party of Lincoln. We may not even have much of a governor’s race, since nobody who’s ever been elected to anything is running against the incumbent.

But we do have a pretty good chance for a nasty fight.

“It probably will be Armageddon,” suggests state Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, “or as (Senate President) Peter (Courtney) says, Antietam.”

Being where we are, Oregon didn’t have any Civil War battles back in the 1860s, so to have one come to us would be striking.

Hass is talking about a likely November battle over IP28, a largely labor-sponsored initiative that would sharply increase gross receipts taxes on companies doing more than $25 million in annual business in Oregon. It would bring in $2.5 billion a year, increasing the state general fund by more than 25 percent.

Not, of course, without a fight.

Maybe even Antietam.

“We should see if there’s a way to get everyone to put down their swords,” says Hass hopefully. “There’s a history in Oregon of legislatures putting less extreme measures on the ballot, and Oregonians have chosen the less extreme measure.”

Putting something else on the ballot, either during the February short session of the legislature or in a spring special session, would require a lot more activity than anybody’s seen so far. Hass, chairman of the Senate revenue committee, is trying to stir up interest, but so far the effort hasn’t been crowded.

“We need both chambers,” he points out. “We also need a governor to be out there.”

And you need something to put on the ballot.

In Oregon, where for decades government has been underfunded while the tax share paid by business has dwindled, the answer might well be a gross receipts tax, successful in many other states. With a constitutional limit on the property tax and a practical limit on the income tax, a transactions tax may be the only place to look.

“There’s some common ground,” says Hass. “The only real difference is the rate.”

That is, of course, not a minimal difference. But as Ben Unger, executive director of Our Oregon, the labor-led alliance promoting the initiative, points out, “People who say we should do something else don’t have another idea.”

And it has taken us a while to get to this point. Over 25 years, it has become clear that no level of economic growth is going to solve Oregon’s public finance problems, as we slowly work our way down the state school spending rankings and seem steadily rooted toward the bottom of the state higher education spending rankings.

“Very few people don’t think we need more money for schools and services,” argues Unger. “It’s not like we haven’t had a bajillion conversations on this.”

Any compromise conversation, he says, would have to be at a certain level. “It would have to start with the same principles, and an agreement on the problems we have to solve,” he says, including “a recognition of the scope of the problems we have.”

In other words, keeping the liquor stores open a few more hours a week probably won’t do it.

At this point, Oregon seems headed for a hard, divisive battle next fall, possibly an Antietam – although that bloodiest Civil War battle at least didn’t include TV attack ads, which the tax initiative fight is likely to produce bountifully in October.

Unger anticipates “tens of millions” could be spent against the measure. “I’m confident they’ll have more,” he says of opponents. “We’ll have enough to run a significant campaign.”
Nobody thinks we could arrive at general agreement on a new revenue package; we haven’t managed it in 30 years. But having an alternative on the ballot could ease the atmosphere, and maybe even result in something productive getting passed by the voters.

Without some kind of alternative on the ballot, the Our Oregon measure might win, enacting a historically large tax increase – likely combined with a sizable minimum wage boost – which could have a bad effect on the Oregon economy. On the other hand, the measure might lose, leaving Oregon schools and government in the same underfunded, inadequate state they’ve occupied for decades – which could also have a bad effect on the Oregon economy.

It might be good to have a third option.

Asked when the third option would be needed, Hass suggests, “Yesterday.””

Or, as we’ll be saying shortly, last year.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 12/30/15.