With my feet firmly back on the ground at home, I am remembering why I fell in love with the Northwest and why I broke up with her. The weather and the people can be both irresistible and maddening. But overall I had an amazing few days at the Knight Foundation Conference in Portland. Pull up a chair.
Portland is the Promised Land for entrepreneurs who have big ideas and limited resources. The intersection of small spaces and city support offers a low barrier to entry for businesses of all types.
In Charlotte developers are combining small spaces and leasing them to big box retailers. Or tearing down old buildings that house small businesses to build monstrous mixed use structures. With poorly planned density. Over and over. It is destructive to everything that makes our urban fabric remotely interesting. It is boring and soul-less.
Local businesses reflect the character of a place. What is the story of our place – Charlotte? The rich historical one appears to be disintegrating before our very eyes.
But what if that were not true? What if we could decide to tell the story of the place we want to live and claim it for Charlotte? Could we claim that for ourselves the way Portland has done? What if it were possible?
Portland wasn’t always the cool, hip place it is now. The underdeveloped neighborhoods were perceived as dangerous, and no one actually went into the downtown area. (Except maybe to go to Powell, and who wouldn’t.)
But then the people began to speak a new story. It certainly didn’t transform a city overnight, but they focused on three things: a smart housing development plan, the development of and collaboration between small local businesses, and a transit plan to link it all together.
OK, so they have a river. Which gives any city a leg up in becoming a destination. But their smart development didn’t rely on that particular feature, and they weren’t focused on making Portland a destination or a “world class city.” The people were telling the story about a place they wanted to live.
A place that has: the Queen Bee, a maker space that is a public-private partnership. The Mercado, incubating food businesses. Tidbit, incorporating semi-permanent places for food trucks, fashion trucks, and community gathering space. Venture Portland, to support the development of small businesses.
Small businesses with owners who create an emotional connection with their customers. Emotional engagement in community is ultimately more valuable than cost and convenience, even if some folks have gotten numb to that.
What can we learn from Portland?
What if we as a city could ask “Why not?” instead of “Why?”
What if there was less regulation but more certifications and education?
What if we could listen to the young voices here who have new ideas instead of grasping at old, tired ones because they are “tried and true?”
With an open hand let’s begin to tell the story about the Charlotte where we want to live. Parts of that story already exists in places like Common Market and Atherton Market. Let’s weave them all together and add to them to create something uniquely *we.* I think that is what we can learn from Portland.