Local comment on a controversial highway project

The Oregonian, September 27, 2011

One More Columbia River Crossing Idiocy

Portland’s leaders have rejected an opportunity to save hundreds of millions of public dollars to protect a speculative private investment of $30 million.

That’s what The Oregonian reported in its front-page story on Sept. 25. A massive new Hayden Island interchange will wipe out dozens of existing businesses for the potential benefit of a long-marginal Jantzen Beach shopping district. Meanwhile, the far more economical option of zapping the new interchange and building a separate, smaller bridge for Hayden Island access is off the table because of pressure from the Jantzen Beach investor.

There are many, many things wrong with the Columbia River Crossing project (it doesn’t exactly fix Marquam Bridge congestion or Rose Quarter congestion, for example), but this latest report is one of the stupidest decisions in a long time. The region does not need Jantzen Beach shopping, as evidenced by the struggles of its stores. Washingtonians who want to duck sales taxes can easily drive to the Delta Park big-box center, where Walmart may soon appear, and to what I call the Ikea Corridor, where big-box stores have been sprouting like mushrooms (check it out if you haven’t been there in a couple of years).

I fear that City Council may not get a basic fact about retailing that even Henry Ford understood: Retail space does not create retail jobs; customer demand creates retail jobs.

When Walmart opens in a small town, it does not create new jobs — it relocates them by forcing the downsizing or closure of smaller existing stores. Business consultants have simple formulas that translate disposable income into support for retail floor space category by category (100 families can support more grocery store space than bagel shop space). I’ve been teaching about this at Portland State University for three decades in a class on “Downtown Revitalization.”

The way to get more retail jobs is to get more basic jobs. Increase employment in basic industries like manufacturing or even university graduate programs that attract students from out of the region (just to put in a plug) and there will be more consumer dollars to spend on microbrews, bicycles, food carts … and Walmart and Target and Ikea and on and on.

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