Ross Island Debacle Shows PDX Pols Are Clueless About the Private Sector

Ross Island has had two distinct uses over the last several decades- a waystation for birds, and one big honkin’ grave pit.

Robert Pamplin, Jr., whose Ross Island Sand & Gravel stopped most operations on Ross a few years back, has been in talks with the City of Portland to give the island to the city. Imagine, if you would, pristine parkland in the middle of the Willamette just south of downtown, and maybe a small ferryboat operation from say, Riverplace.

Dream no more. Yesterday Pamplin – who also owns the Portland Tribune- essentially said he’s tired of a lack of response and resolution from the City of Portland. As a result, he is going to keep his island. (From the Portland Tribune) Pamplin: I’ll keep Ross Island.

While I would have loved to see Ross Island back in city hands, I am not surprised at the type of frustration Pamplin indicated.

This will sound strange coming from a pro-regulation liberal, but I think part of what is going on here is a cultural conflict. The Portland city government from the Mayor on down, just doesn’t understand private enterprise- how to deal with business, how to talk to them.

Examples? I have plenty.

Columbia Sportswear moved their HQ out to Washington County partially out of frustration with then-Mayor Vera Katz.

Schumacher Furs was hounded out of the city while the Portland Police Bureau and their ultimate overseer Mayor Tom Potter, did little if anything to protect them from a small cadre of extremists who kept on hassling their customers.

And now the Ross Island debacle.

The truth is unless you are a developer, Portland City government is not set up to be a friendly facilitator to private enterprise. Part of the problem, I believe, is that with few exceptions, most of the powerful civic figures and agency heads in Portland, have not worked in the private sector. They have spent their lives advocating and regulating, and not seeing what the people who actually run businesses have to deal with on an everyday basis.

A type of Venus and Mars analogy would be appropriate here.

The result, then, is an inability on the part of our public sector leaders to find a common language they can talk to the private sector with.

13 Comments so far

  1. Daniel (unregistered) on June 1st, 2007 @ 7:42 am

    Did you read Pamplin’s letter to the Mayor in today’s Oregonian? Pamplin comes off as a real arrogant jerk.


  2. george (unregistered) on June 1st, 2007 @ 7:56 am

    did you read the conditions of the transfer? VERY UNUSUAL.

    basically the “gift” was a multimillion dollar cleanup project. the transfer came under the condition that the city was fully responsible for the environmental costs. ADDITIONALLY, he was going to retain an easement on the island where he was free to pollute and cause unlimited impact for which the city was ALSO going to be responsible for.

    this is just the case of a single jerk being a jerk.


  3. george (unregistered) on June 1st, 2007 @ 8:04 am

    your example of Schumacher Furs is pretty close. a private company headed by a jerk that is used to people doing what he tells them to do.

    not used to negotiating. not used to working out compromises.

    then the jerk leaves town and blames everyone else but himself.


  4. Norm! (unregistered) on June 1st, 2007 @ 8:14 am

    Uh, you failed to mention that one of the major disputed points of the deal. Pamplin wants to stick the Portland with any yet-to-be-discovered clean-up costs that were caused during his company’s 70+ years of operations. Portland may or may not be a business-friendly government, but you have to give the mayor credit for not caving-in to assuming Pamplin’s liability.

    I’m not sure what else Pamplin can do with the islands. I assume zoning and environmental regulations restrict future development (but I don’t know). So, if Pamplin intends to conserve the islands himself, who cares? It’s a win-win for Portlanders right?


  5. nader (unregistered) on June 1st, 2007 @ 9:13 am

    Yeah, that whole “gift” to the City looked like a big boondoggle when I first read about it some time last year. Basically Pamplin wanted to hand off a potential superfund site to the City of Portland, washing his hands of cleanup liability, and collecting a hefty tax write-off in the process. And what was Portland going to do with the abandoned gravel pit anyway? Extend the sky tram and turn it into condos?

    I find it funny that Pamplin publishes this “woe is me” letter in his own [crappy] newspaper. “Oh, the City doesn’t even want to take a gift from me,” puh-leese! Some gift!

    Oh, and ditto to George and his assessment of the Schumacher Furs situation. The time when the fur business was “mainstream” has passed. The market for his product is ever shrinking, and in a city like Portland if you can’t handle protesters freely expressing their opposition to your socially/ethically backwards enterprise, then you should leave.


  6. Roamsedge (unregistered) on June 1st, 2007 @ 9:18 am

    While I’d agree, in some cases, that Portland officials seem to work at cross-purposes to business interests, that’s not at all what happened here. I’m very glad the city didn’t accept the long list of conditions and unusual demands Pamplin made.

    I mean, come on, Pamplin is reported to have wanted have been able to take the land back if he didn’t like how the city was using it. What the heck kind of “gift” is that?


  7. TKrueg (unregistered) on June 1st, 2007 @ 10:07 am

    Yeah, this comes off as another “Portland Doesn’t Have It’s Shit Together” rant, and evidently it’s too easy to go snarky on Potter, even when it’s patently obvious that Pamplin has offered fools gold… and put suspicious demands on that fools gold.

    So the city drug its feet. Duh.


  8. JG (unregistered) on June 1st, 2007 @ 10:14 am

    This is a little off topic, but in response to Nader:

    “…if you can’t handle protesters freely expressing their opposition to your socially/ethically backwards enterprise, then you should leave.”

    You sir, are a fool. While I have no opinion one way or another about fur, saying that it is ethically backwards seems a bit ridiculous. Furthermore, I have seen those protesters, and I have seen video of them where the story of the lawsuit against them came out, and those people are not just freely expressing their views – they are harassing and menacing the employees and consumers there. Perhaps those protesters should spend their time and energy doing something a little more important…like start worrying about the homeless and hungery PEOPLE, not some damn animals.


  9. Orygunner (unregistered) on June 1st, 2007 @ 12:04 pm

    I’ll add to the chorus that this opinion piece is WAY off base. Pamplin is a spoiled rich brat who wanted to push all responsibility for his future Superfund site onto the City of Portland while maintaining development rights. What a great “deal” (for him)! Then he has the gall to throw a public hissy fit when the City rightfully balks. The arrogance of the ultra-privileged is truly astonishing sometimes.

    On the other hand, I’ve never wanted to see Ross Island made into a city park (the ferry idea is stupendously bad). What the wildlife there doesn’t need are thousands of people tramping around everyday. It should be a wildlife refuge, not another crowded Waterfront Park.

    As for Schumachers, it’s run by the same species of privileged jerk as Pamplin, jerks who can’t even be bothered to abide by the terms of their lease (their former landlord evicted them and is suing them for $47,000 in damages). Good riddance to bad trash as far as I’m concerned.


  10. Daaaaave (unregistered) on June 1st, 2007 @ 1:48 pm

    What everyone above me said. This piece is a bit obtuse.


  11. thedude (unregistered) on June 2nd, 2007 @ 5:18 pm

    What we have here is a private person who doesn’t understand the “public good” The tide is turning a bit, the public is tired of business exploiting the public realm for its own personal profits.


  12. RM (unregistered) on June 2nd, 2007 @ 7:25 pm

    Yeah, the public is realy into those beneficial public-business partnerships like the Portland Tram…


  13. nader (unregistered) on June 3rd, 2007 @ 12:09 pm

    Getting a bit off topic of the original Ross Island issue, I’m gonna just have to respond to taking the discussion down a notch by calling me a fool. Do I know you? Seriously, the fact that I have a different opinion to you, based on a degree of personal knowledge of the situation that I doubt you share, makes me the fool?

    I too have seen the video that all the local media outlets have been showing to “prove” the protesters were “harassing” the Schumacher’s, their employees, and their clients. What I saw in most of those videos, and when on the occasions I was there in person, was protesters staging dramatizations where they put other willing protesters in boxes to simulate cages, and simulated violence towards others dressed up as animals. I did see the “security” guards hired by the Schumacher’s harass and physically confront the protesters, but never once saw anything illegal going the other way. When the police investigated the many, many complaints filed by the Schumacher’s they rarely if ever found any grounds for arrest or prosecution.

    And by the way, you in fact do have an opinion about the fur industry: namely that you feel it is not ethically backwards. I disagree. I feel an industry that raises and destroys animals, often with violent and inhumane methods, not for food or any functional purpose, but rather to make fashionable clothing accessories, is ethically backwards. There was once a time when this may have been acceptable, but in today’s world it is archaic, primitive, and backwards. It is an outmoded industry that the demand for which will ultimately shrink to the point of insignificance.



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