07 30 2016
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The Wake of Vanport

From time to time, everybody can use a helping hand. Whether you're looking for work and need some assistance polishing your resume, or whether you're a business owner trying to get past those critical first few years, a helping hand at the right time can make all the difference.

Fortunately for workers and business owners in certain parts of North and Northeast Portland, just such a helping hand exists.

In partnership with the city of Portland's Bureau of Housing and Community Development, the Enterprise Community Commission is accepting proposals for $187,000 in grants to be divided between private- and public-sector recipients. The commission's initial proposal deadline was April 28, but that has been indefinitely extended, said Sheila Holden, commission chair.

The Portland Enterprise Community was created 12 years ago during the Clinton administration. Similar to the Enterprise Zones created at about the same time, the enterprise community received special priority when it came to the disbursement of grant funds. Although the area's enterprise community designation has since lapsed, after its pre-ordained 10-year run, the commission set up to administer the grant funds that flow to the area is still around — and it's still disbursing funds to help the area create jobs and build wealth.

"The Enterprise Community Commission … originally started out as a joint partnership between Multnomah County, the city of Portland and the North/Northeast Economic Development Alliance," Holden said. "We applied for a federal designation as an Enterprise Zone. We didn't get that, but we did get a designation as a federal Enterprise Community.
With that designation came a 10-year ability to get first consideration for federal government funds when there was a program or grant opportunity that tied back to the goals for the North/Northeast community, Holden said.

Once established, the commission stepped into its role, handing out federal funds to organizations and businesses within the enterprise community. Over 10 years, the commission leveraged some $31 million into the community, Holden said.
Most of the funds went to small and emerging businesses; many had a credit status that made them a bad risk with traditional lending agencies, like banks and credit unions. The rest of the funds went to nonprofit organizations dedicated to training people to be reliable, employable workers.

The enterprise community's boundaries don't resemble anything like a regular shape. It encompasses the south shore of the Columbia River from where it meets the Willamette River east to just past the end of Hayden Island. From there, it follows an irregular path south to the east bank of the Willamette River, roughly between the Fremont Bridge and Interstate 84.

"We picked the poorest Census tracts, and the places where we thought people could create jobs," Holden said of the community's oddly shaped borders.

But the commission doesn't hand out money to just anyone. Businesses that receive funds must face a rigorous evaluation process before, during and after the grant process, Holden said. Not only do business owners need to put their own equity into the business and demonstrate a solid business plan,  they also must be able to prove that they are sticking to it, and that their plan is contributing to the economic health of the larger community.

"They have to show that they've actually been successful in growing their business if they're going to receive funds," she said. "After we review their activities and make recommendations, we have a consultant come in to make a review.

"Based on the conversation we have with the consultant, we then decide what we're actually going to provide, in dollars, and what the work plan is going to be, and what the performance is going to be if we're going to consider it a success. Our purpose is not just to provide money, but to see some real results."

Jennie Portis makes use of the public-sector side of the fund's activities. Portis is the director of the Northeast Workforce Center, a neighborhood hub for job skills training and other employment-related services. She also provides administrative services to the Enterprise Community Commission.

Portis said the commission and the fund have been invaluable to the workforce center's efforts.

"We're still operating on the same pot of money we got from the Bureau of Housing and Community Development during the last round of grants two years ago," Portis said. "It was about $500,000 over two years, administered by the Enterprise Community Commission."

While the lion's share of the grants administered by the commission go to small businesses, Portis said, the monies that go to organizations like the workforce center are essential to the complete picture of creating wealth in the community.

"We often help people who are part of the working poor," she said. "When you're out there flipping burgers, you're not making much money, but you've worked yourself out of a lot of (assistance) programs, and you still need help."

The grant funds used by the workforce center train and house people so they can find stable jobs and stable housing situations. This helps people escape the vicious circle of being unable to find a job because they don't have a permanent address, and being unable to have a permanent address because they don't have income from a job.

"The people that we're working with … also need assistance with their (rental) housing," Portis said. "People who are trying to improve their housing situation are also needing to improve their income situation. Without the one, there is no other."

To qualify for grant funds from the commission, businesses must be located in the enterprise community or employ people who live in it. To apply, contact the Enterprise Community Commission, care of the Black United Fund of Oregon, 2828 N.E. Alberta St., Portland, OR 97211.

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