This month’s Armchair Mayor is Sarah Shaoul, owner of Black Wagon on Mississippi Avenue, which sells items for babies and kids. The boutique has been quite a success, but the selection committee has another reason for choosing Shaoul: her expertise on small businesses and the economic climate in Portland.

One of the most volatile debates raging in the blogosphere and on local talk radio is just how friendly city government really is to business. This follows the release of a report called “City Vitals 2.0” by CEOs for Cities that suggests that Portland is far better off—when compared to other American cities—than is commonly believed.

Shaoul has owned businesses in Portland since 1992, when she moved here from Lawrence, Kan. Her main focus now is on the Black Wagon store, but she’s also on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council, advising other small businesses, as well as a counselor for Portland’s Small Business Development Center.

So, congratulations to this month’s Armchair Mayor: Sarah Shaoul.

NN: First, what’s your main business at Black Wagon: clothes or toys?

SS: My background is apparel. I owned and operated a vintage and new street wear clothing store for 12 years called Retread Threads. Black Wagon began with takedowns from our adult store with items like classic slip-on Vans sneakers and child appropriate clothing, with a fun and mature aesthetic. We're a big hit with aunties and uncles who love picking up cool kids gear they would wear themselves for the kids in their lives. While clothing and shoes are our primary focus, we've grown to be a gift store where toys and books are some of our best sellers.

NN: How have you managed to survive in this economy?

SS: By making tough decisions, cutting expenses, and going back to living like a college student. We've maintained our excellent customer service, for which we are well known, and we continue to carry high-quality merchandise. Buy less and buy long-lasting, quality items! We do this and we encourage others to do the same.

NN: You are a small business consultant, so what would you tell a Portlander who was about to start a small business here in town? Where do you begin?

SS: My son has this awesome vintage tee that says: "Where's the beef?" That's basically where I start with would-be new business owners. Where's the beef in your business plan? What sets you apart? Why are people going to support your business and how will this business make money? There are great resources in Portland like the Small Business Development Center and Mercy Corps. Most importantly, though, people need to get "real" about how their idea will provide for them.

NN: There’s quite a debate about how business-friendly Portland is. Do you think our negative reputation is deserved, or are we in better shape than people think?

SS: For many years, I never understood where Portland got the "unfriendly" to business rap. Now that I spend a little time at City Hall, get to know the decision-makers, you see that it takes a whole lot of work to get things done. It really takes devoted individuals who are willing to put everything aside to make their agendas front and center, build relationships, and make things happen. It's difficult for small businesses to make the sacrifices necessary to get the ear of city government. The City of Portland is interested in building relationships, and because of the time and effort involved, they tend to go after the big fish, like the Intels out there. While Portland has always touted its small business community, they really don't understand how to engage and support the small business community. However, I do think things are changing. Venture Portland is a great supporter of neighborhood-based business communities, and the Portland Development Commission is beginning to see the importance of technical support for small businesses. That's why I am excited about the Small Business Advisory Council and continually reminding decision-makers about the real issues facing on-the-ground small businesses.

NN: What do you think of Portland’s future? Are we on the right track with these big-ticket transportation projects, or could we be spending our city revenues better?

SS: I think Portland will maintain its odd and indie character, which along with livability, is the Portland brand. Portland: odd, indie and a great place to live! Portland is a city where perseverance pays off, where people like Tres Shannon can move beyond an all-ages venue, X-Ray Cafe, and beat out every James Beard Celebrity Chef by creating one of Portland's iconic brands [Voodoo Doughnut]. What excites me about Portland is not necessarily big-ticket transportation projects, but the strength and perseverance of true individuals who find more pride in scoring a sweet deal at a yard sale or thrift shop than concern over wearing the right kind of business suit or driving a high-status automobile.

NN: If you were to speak directly to Portlanders—specifically about the economy—what would you say? The Internet is full of dire warnings about an imminent economic collapse. Where are you on the optimism scale?

SS: Hello great people of Portland, situated on both sides of the Willamette River: Portland provides one of the most beautiful landscapes and places to live in this country. It is you, the people of this great city, that provide the character and opportunities that make Portland a population of independent thinkers with so many exciting and interesting places to discover, explore, learn and play. Let's continue to think outside of the box and keep Portland the progressive home of thinkers, doers and makers! Your passion for this city is reflected in the hard work that goes into your own gardens, our public discourse, our vast and amazing culinary offerings, and our popular bike culture, to name a few. Let's keep innovating and working together to keep Portland the amazing place we call home!

The future truly is bright. We have weathered the worst of the storm and we have come out of it changed. We cannot expect things to return to what they were. Meeting the challenges and adapting to these changes is where new innovations are born. I trust that Portlanders have the character and curiosity to lead us through to both a bright and exciting future!