It seems a lot of people think the pandemic is over.
While I am glad to see smiling unmasked faces in our stores and thrilled for restaurant friends with full tables, I recognize our health care workers face rising infection rates.
Black and AAPI neighbors face as much explicit racial violence across our community today as they do implicit bias embedded within our civic and corporate systems. Houselessness in Portland increased 50% over the past 24 months, and Portland’s employees are struggling to afford rent.
The pandemic isn’t over until it’s over for all of us. And in spite of the vision and resources to do otherwise, city leaders continue to ask those who have suffered greatest to shoulder the burden of our shared economic recovery.
Small business left holding the bag
Shopping locally keeps 70 cents of every dollar in your local community. That money goes to makers, who buy their materials and tools. It goes to workers, who pay their rent and buy their food. Through taxes, small businesses put that dollar back into schools and art and community programs we all vote to support.
We are the employers of this city. We help make Portland go ’round.
When I say “small business,” I don’t mean 100-plus person tech and consulting firms; I mean 20. I mean eight. I mean one hungry, hard-working owner-operator, whose access to capital and affordable loan terms are radically different from the “small business” resources designed for companies 10 times their size. Our backs are so much smaller, and yet we’re asked to carry more.
The money’s there. In true K-shaped recovery fashion, national and multinational businesses in tech and online retail are enjoying record-setting profits and putting more into our shared tax coffer. Plus, Portland’s received more than $100 million in federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act.
And yet, only 40% of the request for a Small Business Stabilization Fund was approved in the city’s 2022-23 budget. That’s 40 cents of every dollar we need to make Portland go ’round.
We have the vision and the resources to do better. Why don’t we have the will?
This small business budget shortfall comes at a time when many of us are just holding on. We’re making our fifth and sixth pivots. We’re raising staff wages and looking for new ways to partner with one another. We are managing supply chain issues and inflation in nearly every sector. We’re scouring our networks for untapped grant applications, aid programs and low-interest loans.
Small business owners are tired of talk with no walk. It’s not enough to ask us what we need, if leaders won’t give it to us. Flash in the pan projects make for good headlines, but they won’t pay my lease. Instead of competing with our neighbors for underfunded grant programs, we ache for systemic changes that support the main street businesses at the core of Portland’s economic heartbeat.
After two years of listening sessions and roundtable discussions with legislators, I still don’t know if they see small businesses as a tourist party trick or truly fundamental to Portland’s future.
Hope in the dark
Hope is a weapon for good, and I wield it still. I know my fellow small business owners will continue to innovate and collaborate, sharing what is left and creating greatness from little.
I trust Better Business Portland to continue to advocate fiercely for us at local and state levels. I trust the partnership and fine-tuning of more flexible relief programs with the good folks at Prosper Portland and Bricks Need Mortar, who do the best they can with limited resources.
Small business might have a voice in more rooms, but the decision-making echo chamber still prevents those who are acutely suffering from contributing to the build of a better, more equitable system. It’s not enough to speak of innovation and inclusive economics; we must operationalize it. We must have the courage to act.
The pandemic is not over until it’s over for all of us.
Bridgid Blackburn is the co-owner of Cargo and the recently elected Vice-Chair of Business for a Better Portland. She also serves on the board of the Central Eastside Industrial Council, co-chairs their Merchants & Makers committee and serves on the board of Venture Portland.
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