Thriving commercial districts are part of what makes Portland great. It’s these distinct neighborhood hubs, each with a unique character, that draw out the coffee drinker, vintage clothes connoisseur, vinyl collector, or simply the hungry.

When you look at the history of these neighborhoods, and their commercial corridors in particular, you’ll soon discover that they weren’t always bustling. The Pearl District, for example, was once a collection of warehouses and industrial space that had a very small residential footprint and much less commercial activity. All of that changed, though, with a vision and allocation of resources. And while not every neighborhood will become the Pearl, nor do they all strive to be, other neighborhoods share a similar history of being underutilized, or even neglected and in decline, before being invigorated with a combination of planning and available resources.

In the case of the Pearl, urban renewal funds paved the way for private investment. This formula has not worked for every neighborhood, though, and there are other resources available to invigorate your neighborhood’s business district. Below are some ways you can boost business and build community in your neighborhood.


What Is Your Business District Missing?

Kenton Business Association, with assistance from Venture Portland, organized street festivals, hosted a media brunch to bring press to the business district, and installed street banners to create a district identity. Kenton Street Fair 2010.
Kenton Business Association, with assistance from Venture Portland, organized street festivals, hosted a media brunch to bring press to the business district, and installed street banners to create a district identity. Kenton Street Fair 2010.

Making a wish list, so to speak, can be the first step in making desired changes in your neighborhood. Before looking for the resources to improve your business district, assessing the need is key. Kenton Business Association President Jessie Burke states, “When thinking of grant funds, really evaluate what you think is going to help change the neighborhood.”

If you’re a business owner, these changes can range from storefront improvements and graffiti abatement, to more efficient lighting and fresh paint. Resources are available to make those improvements less costly. Ditto for the neighborhood resident who just wants to see more green space, art or pedestrian safety in their business district.

Physical improvements are not always necessary to boost business and grow your community, though. Sometimes creating identity and bringing awareness to your business district is the necessary first step. When brainstorming what Kenton needed, Burke noted that her business association had to ask: “What has been lacking? Community involvement? A cohesive event for the business community to get on board with? A visual recognition of the business community?” 

Burke admits, “We struggled with each of these.” To address those deficiencies, the Kenton Business Association, with assistance from Venture Portland, organized street festivals, hosted a media brunch to bring press to the business district, and installed street banners to create a district identity. So we see, then, that their initial assessment of the business district’s needs led to direct action.


Get Support From The Community

The Roseway community secured funding for a mural on the Brickhouse Pizza building on Sandy Boulevard and SE 68th.
The Roseway community secured funding for a mural on the Brickhouse Pizza building on Sandy Boulevard and SE 68th.

Your neighbors and existing businesses can be your most valuable asset. To bring attention to the changes you wish to make, get involved with your community. It may seem simple, but sharing ideas with your neighbors and partnering with the various groups in your community, such as neighborhood and business associations, is a vital second step. By creating these networks and building support, you can better access the resources that are available.

Sandra Lefrancois, Community Program Director with Central Northeast Neighbors, points to the success of community action in her coalition’s Roseway and Cully neighborhoods. Citing a collaboration between various businesses, churches, schools, and neighborhood residents, Lefrancois says, “It is the organizing from within the community that helped include Cully in the Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative.” The inclusion in the PDC program, which targets six commercial districts across Portland, will allow Cully to access city money to fill vacant storefronts, strengthen existing businesses, and increase the business district’s visibility.

Lefrancois does not understate the value of community and building partnerships. In regards to other projects in her district, she maintains, “With the community’s momentum, if it’s strong, then those other entities will want to support it.” 

For example, Lefrancois highlights the Roseway community’s ability to secure funding for a mural on the Brickhouse Pizza building on Sandy Boulevard and SE 68th. The community involvement for this project, which included public input and support from local businesses and area residents, led to a partnership between the neighborhood and the Regional Arts and Culture Council, which offered partial funding for the project. This partnership ultimately led to more leveraged funds from the city’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI), which awarded the neighborhood a grant to hire an artist.


Where’s The Help?

Kenton's North Denver Street in 2009 before improvements.
Kenton's North Denver Street in 2009 before improvements.

So, you have an idea and the community support to back it. You’ve collaborated with your neighborhood or business association to bring momentum to the plan. Now what? 

Determine which resources are available for your project. If your business district is lacking trees, green space or interactive public space, Friends of Trees, City Repair and Depave can help. They’ll organize work parties, offer trainings, and help empower communities to see projects through to completion.

Tired of graffiti, or seeking to promote the arts in your business district? ONI’s Graffiti Abatement Program offers grants to help cover the cost of graffiti removal or, instead, deterrents like murals and public art. ONI also administers the Neighborhood Small Grants Program, which is overseen by the various neighborhood coalitions. These grants have helped fund the creation of farmers’ markets and the addition of street banners, among other things, in various business districts.

And there’s more. Venture Portland, formerly the Alliance of Portland Neighborhood Business Associations, offers assistance directly to business associations. “In fiscal year 2011-12, Venture Portland awarded $70,000 to fund 31 business district projects, leveraging an additional $250,000 in private investment,” says LeAnn Gentry, Venture Portland’s Marketing Manager. The resources are there, it’s just a matter of building partnerships and tapping into them.

In Kenton, Gentry explains, some of Venture Portland’s funding went toward “filling storefront vacancies through leasing and remodeling incentives.” In other neighborhoods, its grant programs help with business start-up costs, or simple marketing and promotion of business districts that may need more recognition to thrive.

In addition to the above resources, PDC provides a few more options if you live within an area targeted by its Neighborhood Economic Development Strategy. PDC’s Storefront Improvement Program offers grants to help offset the cost of giving your business a facelift. It also administers the Portland Main Street program, Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative, and Community Livability Grants programs, which have highlighted specific business districts for targeted improvements. If you live in one of these neighborhoods, research which program may offer the best resources for your business district.


Putting Your Plan Into Action

Disjecta's Depave project in Kenton.
Disjecta's Depave project in Kenton.

Now that you’ve assessed the needs of your business district, found the necessary support from the community, and identified some programs that may help, it’s time to make use of the available resources. Accessing them isn’t always easy, though. When speaking of a project her organization, Depave, worked on, Maia Nativ acknowledges, “The process can be quite consuming. Depave is always happy to help organizations and property owners make it through.” 

Depave helps organize the removal of concrete surfaces, such as parking lots, in neighborhoods seeking community green spaces. Just as important, however, they work with community groups and businesses to secure funding from the PDC, Bureau of Environmental Services, and the East and West Multnomah County Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Once a plan is in place, Depave can help you see it through to completion.

As an example of one such project, Nativ highlights the work Depave did with Disjecta on North Interstate Avenue. “They completely transformed their parking lot into a creative outdoor performance and gathering space. They were able to include two large rain gardens that now collect the majority of the stormwater runoff from the property,” Nativ explains. No doubt, this project required a lot of work. It was transformational, however, and the amount of work doesn’t have to be a deterrent.

Don’t be deterred. Your business district needs YOU.

With the PDC’s shift toward economic development, and the city’s focus on creating 20-minute neighborhoods, the resources to improve our business districts have become surprisingly accessible. Changes start at the community level, though, and a vision must be in place. To enact those changes, build momentum through neighborhood involvement to make securing the needed resources easier. And once those resources are identified, you’ll be more equipped to put your plan into action.