Attracting Industry in a Sustainable Way

We know that building a more sustainable region means maintaining our focus on the three Es: a prosperous economy, a healthy environment, and an equitable allocation of community resources and opportunity.  Metro has taken a big step toward the first of these by forging an alliance with the Port of Portland and private sector business advocates to increase the supply of “shovel ready” industrial sites in the region.  Now we need to ensure that the environment and equity remain front and center in this effort to aid job growth.

Just before Thanksgiving, the Metro Council received a report on the supply of large (25 acres and more) industrial sites, jointly prepared by Metro, the Port, and private sector interests.  It’s the first step toward a strategy for increasing the supply of ready-to-build sites for jobs, by combining public inventories of vacant land with site-specific private-sector information about the land’s suitability and readiness for accommodating new jobs.

It was also the first step in what could be a very important partnership between Metro and the Port, which helped put together the detailed inventory of land availability and readiness as part of the Port’s renewed interest in acquiring and developing industrial land around the region.  Metro lacks the expertise of the Port in land development for industry; the region can benefit from focusing the Port’s development capabilities to achieve regional economic priorities.

That’s the good news.  More sobering is what the industrial land report showed:  there are only nine vacant industrial sites of 25 or more acres within the urban growth boundary that can be ready for development within 180 days.  There are another 50 large sites, but they will all require anywhere from six months to three years or more to be ready.

Of course, most job growth will occur in already-existing vacant buildings and on parcels smaller than 25 acres—neither of which was counted in this inventory.  But larger sites are a key part of the region’s ability to attract and retain large firms that export products made here or substitute products that we would otherwise need to import from elsewhere.  These “traded sector” businesses can help anchor our region’s economy and provide existing local companies with markets and services that drive more job growth. 

So it makes sense to determine what it will take to increase the number of large sites that can be put to use by new or growing firms.  The Port and Metro will next estimate the cost of doubling the supply of 25-plus acre sites by cleaning up, assembling and serving ten more sites that at present aren’t ready to go in 180 days or less—essentially doubling the number of large shovel ready sites.  This next phase won’t decide who will pay that cost, or how any public portion might be raised.  But it will put real numbers behind the goal of improving our readiness for economic recovery.

That’s where it becomes critically important to engage all three of our goals, not solely economic development.  We need to ensure that as we prepare additional sites we also ensure protection of the environment and further equitable access to jobs.  We can include habitat and natural resource protection plans in the work we do to make large sites shovel-ready.  That way, when development begins, environmental objectives will already be integrated into the development standards, speeding the process of adding jobs.  And of course, whenever we build for jobs on passed-over or long-neglected sites inside the urban growth boundary, instead of on farmland or natural areas, we advance all our sustainability goals.  We put new jobs close to where people looking for work already live—making jobs more convenient to low income households, and commuting impacts lower, than putting most new sites on the edge in UGB expansion areas.

Metro and the Port are off to a good start.  Now’s the time to ensure that the results are truly sustainable.