This month’s Armchair Mayor is Tony Fuentes—also our first honoree to go by the title “Chief Executive Papa.” This is in reference to the Milagros Boutique that he runs with his wife Jennifer in the Concordia neighborhood, providing baby supplies for “little miracles and their mamas.” If your child is not feeling all that miraculous that day, there is also a play area and a rocking chair.

Tony Fuentes represents the type of small business owner cherished by the Armchair Mayor Selection Committee. He serves on Portland’s Neighborhood Economic Development Leadership Group and on Multnomah County’s Business Advisory Council. He also shares his opinions on the local economy as an online host for Launchpad Radio.

In short, he is perfectly placed to give us some insight into how the city of Portland is doing.

NN: Do you see any signs of an economic uptick? Is there a recovery underway or is it too soon to call it that?

 TF: I was a teaching fellow in energy and environmental economics at Harvard. What I see as a reformed academic is that we are in a recovery but construction spending still needs to tip away from public money and back to private investment. Housing prices are poised to rise again in Oregon, so a “traditional recovery” is on the way. That said, my hope as a local business owner is that the underpinning of our local recovery isn’t so traditional.

We have featured hundreds of locally made products at Milagros over the years but this was the first holiday season that “is this local?” was the most common question from our customers. That’s a very positive sign for Portland. The greatest power each of us has to support our local economy is the choice we make on where and how we spend our hard-earned dollars. The more we “live local,” the more resilient our local economy will be.

NN: Why did you get involved in online radio? Did you feel there was not enough coverage of certain aspects of society, or is it more of a labor of love?

 TF: Milagros was an early supporter of the Parenting Unplugged podcasts. The hosts of that show, Todd and Laura Mansfield, became fast friends with my wife, Jennifer, and me. After getting too many earfuls from me on local economics and local politics, they hoped that putting me in front of a mic on LaunchPad would shut me up. They were wrong, I remain insufferable.

Labor of love is a good way to describe LaunchPad but I hope it is also informative for Portlanders. For instance, we did unedited interviews with the major candidates for Portland’s mayor. I think those interviews are worth the 30-minute investment by Portland voters to get some substance rather than style points about Hales, Brady and Smith.

NN: What’s your assessment of Portland as a place for a small business to start?

 TF: I have started businesses in Boston, Seattle and Portland. Portland has been the easiest in terms of out-of-pocket cost—start-up expenses, taxes, license fees and so on—but the most devilish with regard to bureaucratic burden. The city’s commission system is like having five mayors and the result is the five faces of Eve; the city bureaus don’t play well with others or with each other.

On the other hand, Portland’s locally owned businesses are a very open and welcoming community. Collaboration is a distinctive local strength that isn’t unique to any single sector of the Portland economy—there is collaboration within the tech sector via the Portland Seed Fund and similar initiatives, collaboration within design and manufacturing sectors as epitomized by ADX, collaboration in local business marketing through projects like Supportland, and so on. This economic advantage outweighs the headaches of local red tape by a wide margin. It should be no surprise that small businesses account for 66 percent of net job creation in Oregon. This is how we grow.

NN: Do you feel that our economic priorities as a city are out of whack?

 TF: I moved here in 2001. At that time there were miles and miles of substandard streets in East Portland and local schools were underfunded and underperforming. Now it’s 2012 and there are miles and miles of substandard streets in East Portland and local schools are underfunded and underperforming. Reading about the potential of zero street maintenance and more cuts at Portland Public Schools is troubling.

Right now, 24 cents of every property tax dollar the city collects is spent on urban renewal-related debt (up from 16 cents per dollar a decade ago). This debt service hampers the city’s ability to respond to day-to-day maintenance and operation needs. This same dynamic is affecting Multnomah County and our public schools; both of those entities also lose funding via urban renewal debt service.

I think we should have a moratorium on urban renewal spending until we get our house in order. Overall, we need to move our economic development focus away from subsidizing real estate, which has had no measurable impact on overall employment, and into small business development and long-term job creation. Hopefully our elected officials (and soon-to-be-elected officials) can fight the attraction of bright, shiny objects like the Sustainability Center.

NN: Are you optimistic about the future of Portland and what do you think we should focus on to ensure a viable path ahead?

 TF: I am optimistic about Portland’s future. There is no shortage of entrepreneurial passion and community spirit in our fair city. Look at Hawthorne, NE 82nd, Mississippi, Lombard, Alberta, and you see the same thing: one small business after another—local sweat, local energy, local dreams. I also meet people every week whose commitment to our community is inspiring and humbling. I was not surprised to learn that Portland is one of the most generous cities in terms of volunteer time. At the end of the day, the folks who waste their creativity crafting negative comments on OregonLive haven’t got a chance against the doers in this town.

As for focus, the city needs to get back to basics. The streets and sidewalks, the sewer lines and public spaces we have paid for with our tax dollars can’t be allowed to crumble. That said, the biggest challenge to the long-term health of our economy and community is the high school completion rate.

Local creativity and innovation is lost every time we allow a child to “fall through the cracks.” We need to do more than believe in better; we need to be better in our commitment to our young people and our shared future.

NN: If you could address the people of Portland directly in your new role as Armchair Mayor, what would you tell them?

 TF: Don’t waste your time being sensitive or smug about how Portland is portrayed in the media or where it ranks on magazine top ten lists. You live right here, right now and you know what makes us special and what challenges we face. The greatest opportunities we have are those that grow from local innovation, local sweat, and the strength of our connections as a community.

The simple truth is we are all job creators. Each of us needs to embrace this strength and realize the personal responsibility we have in building a better local economy. We can grow better together. Let’s get to work.

Disclosure: Milagros Boutique collaborates with Neighborhood Notes.