"There's something that I can't describe about the city of Portland that I really love - just physically - how it feels to walk around there and have coffee there.  Also, the way that it's a little overcast sometimes.  Something about Portland just really resonated with me." - Fred Armisen

Uniting Locally to Compete Globally

Portland, Oregon was one of the cities that was hit the hardest by the recession of 2008.  Portland, like most major metropolitan regions in the United States, was caught in a tailspin of falling real estate prices and economic malaise.  However, Portland took the initiative to align all of its strengths into a unified strategy, and in less than a decade, Oregon has gone from being one of the worst economies in the U.S. to one of the best.

This story has been overlooked on the national stage because of instead of learning about Oregon's new prosperity; most Americans focus on Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s antics on the hit IFC Show Portlandia.  Like a lot of cities, in the decade leading up to the economic downturn, Portland’s economy was overly reliant on the residential real estate growth.  Only Las Vegas, Nevada, and Riverside, California, lost more economic ground than Portland during the recession.[1]  According to a 2010 study published by the Brooking Institution (Brookings), a Washington, DC-based think-tank, and the London School of Economics[2], consumption-led growth left “major metros with a glut of housing, diminished productive capacity, or both.”[3]   The study noted that city governments like Portland were “ill-suited for keeping pace with fast-paced global economic changes.”[4]

Portland responded to this challenge in 2011 by joining Brookings Global Cities Initiative (GCI)., a joint project between Brookings and JPMorgan Chase “aimed at helping the leaders of metropolitan America strengthen their economies by becoming more competitive in the global marketplace.”[5]  The GCI provided 28 metropolitan areas including Portland with market research, forums, and an information exchange network to facilitate the development of integrated export and foreign direct investment (FDI) assessments. 

Within the GCI, Portland was chosen as one of four metro regions (the others were Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Syracuse) for a Metro Export Initiative pilot program to create a customized export plan in partnership with Brookings and the U.S. Department of Commerce.  Each of these programs applied market intelligence to develop targeted export-related services and strategies to help connect local firms to global customers.[6]  In addition to the Portland’s new export promotion strategy, Portland seized another opportunity by joining a Brookings FDI pilot program in early 2014 along with Columbus, Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Antonio, San Diego and Seattle.[7]  Brookings partnered with each of these cities to create deliberate plans to attract FDI.  Only Minneapolis-St. Paul and Portland took advantage of the export and FDI partnerships simultaneously. 

According to The Making of Global Cities Report published by Brookings which analyzed the results of these efforts, “No single model has emerged for these partnerships.  Some build on a foundation of cultural ties or existing economic links, while others are based on similar population size, industries, and sectors, academic institutions, and other commonalities.  In some cities and metro areas, regional economic development organizations have taken the lead; in others, city agencies or other groups have driven efforts.  Goals, activities, and results often vary across collaborations.”[8]  After assimilating export and FDI promotion strategies from Brookings, Portland integrated these strategies into one comprehensive plan that unified local businesses to compete globally called Greater Portland Global (GPG). 

The Local Level: Greater Portland Global

In March 2015, Greater Portland Inc., a public-private economic development organization, and the Brookings Global Cities Initiative launched the GPG strategy.{9]  Sean Robbins, the former President and CEO of Greater Portland Inc. and the former Director of Business Oregon stated, “To compete with metro areas around the world, we have got to be able to organize ourselves at the metro level to compete.”[10]  For example, one of the highest-profile companies in Oregon is semiconductor chip maker, Intel.  While Intel is based in California, Intel’s operations in Oregon stretch across five campuses west of Portland in Washington County.  The campuses comprise Intel’s largest and most comprehensive site in the world—a global center of semiconductor research and manufacturing and the anchor of Oregon’s economy.  The company has nearly 19,500 employees in Oregon, making it the state’s largest private employer.[11]  According to Jill Eiland, Intel’s Corporate Affairs Manager, “The world is now a global marketplace.  We can’t just rely on the citizens within our region to keep our businesses afloat.  If I can use Intel as an example, 75% of our manufacturing is done inside the United States, but 75% of our revenue comes from outside the United States.”[12]

The GPG strategy documented the region’s strengths, how the region can improve its export and FDI efforts, and how the region planned to galvanize government resources at multiple levels for long-term economic development.  The ongoing focus of GPG is to increase access to global markets and FDI to create and maintain a sufficient number of quality jobs to support the region’s growing population.  The GPG strategy outlined four goals:

  1. Create a strong local export and FDI culture and a global reputation for Greater Portland as a competitive region for international business.
  2. Grow exports and FDI by aligning and coordinating the region’s economic development efforts around key industries and markets.
  3. Diversify export industries, increasing the number of companies exporting and the markets they access.
  4.  Build on FDI from leading source countries and industries, while also seeking to grow FDI from underrepresented source countries and industries.

The GPG strategy outlined four cross-cutting strategies that were blended together to support export and FDI objectives simultaneously: 

Stage-Specific Interventions

The GPG described how Portland could support growth across four stages of the economy: nascent, emerging, established, and legacy sectors.  Portland would facilitate introductions between early-stage firms and foreign companies for investment, commercialization and deployment opportunities at events such as Oregon Best Fest.  To support emerging firms, Portland would expand its peer-to-peer mentoring program which matched experienced exporters with new exporters, and seek ways to connect local venture capital firms to worldwide sources of capital.  Finally, the Brookings export assessment revealed that Oregon’s software industry is prominent within the U.S., but the industry would benefit from an international marketing program to further the global aspirations of local companies. 

The GPG highlighted that the regional economy relies on its two largest companies, Intel and Nike, and its two major foreign investors, Germany and Japan, to anchor the regional economy.  While sophisticated companies like Intel and Nike don’t require assistance with exporting, Portland would seek opportunities to support Intel’s and Nike’s secondary and tertiary suppliers by preparing market-ready industrial sites.  With respect to FDI, Portland would attempt to diversify to other markets, but the region also renewed its long-term commitments to Germany and Japan through official visits and closer ties with these countries and their cultural institutions. 

Therefore, Portland coordinated trade and investment missions to prioritized markets, working with local, regional, state and federal partners.  In an interview with Brookings, Sam Adams, the former Mayor of Portland recalled that during an export mission to Toronto that, “We had meetings scheduled with all of these developers, and they thought they were meeting the Mayor of Portland , and they did, but sitting behind me were five companies and we just starting pitching them.  Not only Portland but on specific companies.  Out of that trip, three of the five companies got contracts.”[13]

Business Retention & Expansion

Portland’s work with Brookings revealed that traditional business retention and expansion (BR&E) strategies could play a role in retaining and increasing FDI.  For example, Daimler's acquisition in 1981 of Freightliner Trucks, a local manufacturer, resulted in the acquired company's growth and the foreign parent's continued commitment to Oregon.  However, with mergers and acquisitions (M&A), the new owner sometimes closes or shrinks local operations.  Additionally, foreign-owned enterprises (FOEs) that were interviewed for the assessments explained the complexities they face in opening a foreign outpost in Oregon, ranging from cultural issues and legal considerations, to the constant imperative of making a case for additional resources and investment from the corporate parent.  To mitigate these risks, the local economic development community expanded on BR&E protocols to include aftercare for new FOEs to foster closer ties to local companies.  Specifically, Portland helped incorporate new FOEs into the local supply chain and accelerated the Port of Portland’s efforts to expand air and cargo service to key Asian markets. 

Mergers & Acquisitions

Another finding from the preparation of the GPG was that since 1991, 47% of the new jobs under foreign ownership in Portland were the result of M&A (the remaining 53% were from greenfield investments).  The M&A activity over this period resulted in approximately 11,100 jobs, primarily in FOEs that have a small business presence in the region, employing 51-250 people, even if the parent company may be a large business.  This statistic underscores what FOEs said in interviews with Brookings, that the region is an interesting “beach head” to North American markets, and that the region is attractive because of assets such as cheap electricity, abundant water, and the highly-developed talent pool of established sectors.  To attract further FDI, the GPG called for tailored strategies to market particular firms looking for capital or foreign acquisition, extend the aforementioned BR&E techniques, and develop regional procedures for effective response to foreign acquisitions.

 Market Prioritization

During his service at the Director of Business Oregon, Sean Robbins stated, "Because we can’t be everything, to everyone, all over the globe, all of the time, which often times trade missions, and trips, and strategy becomes – where can we go visit next?  The reality is that we have to be very targeted and focus on where we put our time and energy and money.”[14]  Oregon’s three priorities in the international trade arena are Germany, Japan, and emerging opportunities that are a strong match for the region’s assets. 

According to the findings in the GPG research, Germany and Japan are responsible for most of the FDI in Oregon.  Together, these two countries account for 43% of total foreign-owned employment in the region, with Switzerland a distant third at 8%.  While German FDI is centered on landmark investments in the area by Daimler and Adidas, Japanese investment is spread across a larger number of firms and a variety of sectors.  In addition, the only global trade office that Oregon has anywhere in the world with full-time staff is in Tokyo.  GPG sought to reaffirm the primary importance of Germany and Japan, even as Portland casted a wider net for nascent and emerging markets around the world that complement the region’s strengths.  Executives from German and Japanese companies also mentioned the importance of government outreach and cultural institutions as "guide rails" for their investments.

The State Level: Business Oregon

The Portland metropolitan region comprises over half of Oregon’s population.[15]  Specifically, most of the region's residents live in the four counties of Multnomah, Washington, Clark, and Clackamas.[16]  But, for the GPG strategy to reach its full potential, the benefits of international trade would need to expand to the rest of the state.  When Oregon’s former Governor, John Kitzhaber appointed Sean Robbins as the Director of the Department of Economic Development, also known as Business Oregon, he said, "Oregon's economy is moving in the right direction.  We need to maintain our focus to ensure our economic recovery reaches every corner of the state”[17]  Business Oregon[18] and the GPG articulated several ways to enlist the state’s resources to spread the benefits of global business beyond Portland:

  • Consulting & Overseas Assistance: Business Oregon helps businesses grow by accessing foreign markets.  The State has representatives in China, France, Japan, and South Korea staffed by bilingual professionals equipped with both private-sector experience in their markets and knowledge of Oregon products, companies and culture (The representatives in China, France, and South Korea are part-time officials that work in tandem with the Port of Portland).
  • EB-5 Visa Program: As described in the GPG, Business Oregon is the designated authority within the State of Oregon to certify geographic areas to qualify for the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa program.  This federal program is available to immigrants seeking to enter the United States to invest in a new commercial enterprise that will benefit the U.S. economy and create at least ten full-time jobs.
  • FDI Promotion & Coordination: Greater Portland Inc. would partner with Business Oregon and the State of Washington’s Department of Commerce for inbound and outbound foreign investment missions.
  • Financial Assistance & International Trade Shows: Business Oregon provides export promotion grants of approximately $2,500 to offset expenses for Oregon companies so they can attend international trade shows abroad.
  • Partner Services & Exporting Basics: Business Oregon partners with government partners as well as non-profit partners to help make sure that Oregon businesses have access to all the tools, services and other export financing required to succeed in the global marketplace.

Tim McCabe, the former Director of Business Oregon, stated in testimony before the Oregon House Agriculture and Natural Resources Interim Committee that, “Our foreign trade office is comprised of 12 individuals, we have four trade experts in Portland that help and assist Oregon companies with questions and trade shows throughout the world.  What we do is we identify these international trade shows, our representatives tell them (i.e., potential foreign customers) the companies that we got, the products that they make, and we find the venues to market those products.  Our help is very minimal on this.  We give these companies $2,500 to defer their expenses, but without that, they typically wouldn’t go to these shows because they are small companies that cannot afford to do this, and without us, they don’t even know about the shows.”[19]

Later in his testimony, Tim described how Business Oregon helped local companies participate in a motorcycle trade show in Milan which resulted in deals for three companies located outside of Portland in Ashland, Bend, Newberg.  According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, a total of 6,084 companies in Oregon exported during 2014.  Of those companies, 5,390 were small to medium sized exporters across the state.[20]  Therefore, Business Oregon’s wide-variety of tools help Oregon’s businesses become more profitable and dynamic.

The Federal Level: U.S. Export Assistance Center Portland & Select USA

The next dimension of GPG was to utilize federal government tools like the U.S. Commercial Service’s U.S. Export Assistance Center (USEAC) in Portland for export promotion and Select USA to attract FDI.  The USEAC and Select USA are agencies within the U.S. Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration.  The USEAC in Portland is staffed with Commerce Department employees that live in Portland and work every day to help local companies identify and evaluate international partners, navigate international documentation challenges, and create market entry strategies.[21]  Select USA is based in Washington, DC, but GPG suggested that Select USA would be another venue for Oregon companies to participate in future outbound and inbound FDI missions which would compliment FDI efforts at the state level..

One of the U.S. Commercial Service’s best success stories in Oregon in Stash Tea, one of the largest specialty tea companies in the United States.  Cindy Harling, the International Sales Manager for Stash Tea, described that “We’ve seen so many of our competitors’ products on the shelf, and we have realized that it is time for us to take action, and be part of that growth.”[22]  The CEO of Stash Tea, Tom Lisicki said that “It’s been really great working with the Commercial Service because as we enter different countries, I’m learning that every country is different.  For some reason, I thought there were more worldwide standards for products, but we are learning that there might be different standards for how we label products, what the ingredients are, which ones are allowed and which ones aren’t.... extremely complex.”[23]

In 2016, Stash Tea exported its first shipment container of tea of Brazil with the assistance of the U.S. Commercial Service.[24]  Today, Stash Tea is sold in more than two dozen countries around the world, and their website facilitates international orders.  According to the International Trade Administration, Stash Tea and other Oregon companies have increased the Portland region’s exports by 22% since 2009.[25]  In 2015, Portland exported $18.8 billion in goods making it the 19th largest exporting region in the United States.[26]

Public & Private: We Build Green Cities

Now that Portland developed strategies to create a city where people want to work, local leaders had to ensure that they were creating a city where people wanted to live.  There is no point to economic development if you can’t attract and retain a talented labor force.  Richard Florida, a professor and urban studies theorist, suggests that “Economic development used to be, ‘I want to collect company headquarters.  I want to bribe company factories to come.’  Companies are important, but you have to look at people.  People are an economic asset, and for economic development we not only attract and recruit companies, we attract and recruit people.  So it’s not like New York or London have to be uber urban.  They have a lot to learn from Seattle and Portland and Barcelona and other green cities.”[27]  

Portland incorporated an existing public-private partnership called We Build Green Cities into the GPG.  The Portland Development Commission (PDC) convenes the We Build Green Cities initiative on behalf of the City of Portland and local industry.  As the city’s urban and economic development agency, PDC focuses on investing in job creation, innovation, and economic opportunities to make Portland one of the world’s most desirable and equitable cities.  We Build Green Cities was originally conceived as a marketing initiative but it evolved into a business development platform that secures work for firms in target markets around the world.  According to the GPG, We Build Green Cities has helped companies make export sales in Japan and inspired the U.S. Department of Commerce to award the PDC $300,000 from the International Trade Administration’s Market Development Cooperator Program to help the local green building and clean tech industries generate foreign exports.

A Web of Cooperation

In his latest book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, Thomas Friedman describes that local expertise is required to compete in the global economy.  He writes that "Many businesses are now global and quite dynamic; many cities now sponsor their own international trade missions and create their own consortiums of local businesses, educators, and philanthropies to upgrade their workforces.  And thanks to local think tanks and universities participating in public policy, there is plenty of localized expertise available.  Very often I meet with mayors who have a much better grasp of the world, and the requirements for competitiveness, than their congressman.”[28]

The key to GPG’s success was that the region’s economic development strategies created a web of cooperation that transcended the tenures of local business leaders, Mayors, Business Oregon Directors, and Governors.  According to data compiled by Bloomberg, Oregon had the best-performing economy in the nation in 2016 measured by employment, home prices, personal income, tax revenues, mortgage delinquency and the publicly traded equity of its companies.[29]  Portland has gone from a city that was “ill-suited for keeping pace with fast-paced global economic changes” to an integrated region that has created a path towards sustainable, long-term economic development.


[1]  Portland area among the cities hardest hit by the recession by Jeff Manning,, dated November 30, 2010.  Retrieved February 8, 2017.  Available at: among the worlds.html

[2]  Global Metro Monitor: A Preliminary Overview of 150 Global Metropolitan Economies in the Wake of the Great Recession, by Alan Berube, et. al., December 2010.  Retrieved March 16, 2017.  Available at

[3]  Ibid

[4]  Ibid

[5]  Global Cities Initiative - Greater Portland Inc.  Retrieved February 8, 2017.  Available at:

[6]  Metropolitan Export Initiative: Growing Exports from the Bottom Up, International Trade Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce.  Retrieved February 9, 2017.  Available at:

[7]  Brookings Avenue Blog: Global Cities Initiative Introduces New Foreign Direct Investment Planning Process, by David Jackson, dated April 10, 2014.  Retrieved February 9, 2017.  Available at:

[8]  The Making of Global Cities, Stories from the Global Cities Initiative a Joint Project of Brookings and J.P. Morgan Chase by Rachel Barker, Amy Liu, and Marek Gootman, at 30, dated September 28, 2016.  Available at:

[9]  Portland Development Commission - Greater Portland region launches global strategic plan to attract investments and grow exports, dated March 17, 2015.  Available at: 17/Greater_Portland_region_launches_global_strategic_plan_to_attract_investments_and_grow_exports.aspx

[10]  Brookings: The Metropolitan Revolution: Portland Goes Global.  Published September 16, 2013.  Available at:

[11]  Intel in Oregon – available at:

[12]  Brookings: The Metropolitan Revolution: Portland Goes Global.  Published September 16, 2013.  Available at:

[13]  Brookings: The Metropolitan Revolution: Portland Goes Global.  Published September 16, 2013.  Available at:

[14]  Portland Development Commission: Oregon and Japan – Partners in Trade.  Published August 28, 2015. Available:

[15]  U.S. Census Bureau Quick Facts Oregon, available at:

[16]  Metro News: Portland region nears 2.4 million residents, growing by 41,000 last year, by Craig Beebe, dated March 23, 2016; available at:

[17] Gov. John Kitzhaber shuffles Oregon economic development posts, by Harry Esteve, dated March 18, 2014, available at:

[18]  Business Oregon – Global Connections, available at:

[19]  Oregon, Business Oregon, International Marketing and Trade, dated November 18, 2011, available at:

[20]  U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration: Oregon Exports, Jobs, & Foreign Investment, updated February 2017, available at

[21]  U.S. Commercial Service Portland – available at:

[22]  International Trade Administration: U.S. Commercial Service Helps Tea Company Navigate Complex International Regulations, available at:

[23]  Id.

[24]  Id.

[25]  International Trade Administration - Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA Merchandise Exports in 2015, available at:

[26]  Id.

[27]  McKinsey & Company – Building the Creative Economy: An Interview with Richard Florida, dated December 2013, available at:

[28]  Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, by Thomas L. Friedman, page 326.

[29]  Bloomberg View: Oregon Is the Picture of Economic Health, dated February 9, 2016, available at: