PORTLAND — You can’t blame John Helmer for being a sunny optimist. The third-generation proprietor of John Helmer Haberdasher in downtown Portland will celebrate the family store’s 100th birthday this year. It has survived depression, world war, and the advent of Amazon.
But life — and business — as he knew it ended last March. Like thousands of other business owners in Oregon, Helmer had to deal with the global pandemic and a whole new lexicon of disaster — stay-home orders, social distancing, PPE, super-spreading events and the virtual workplace. None of it was good for business.
Downtown Portland emptied out as employers sent their workers home to ride out the COVID-19 disaster. Tuesday, March 23, marked one year since Oregon issued a stay-home order that forced many businesses, including boutiques like Helmer’s, to shut down.
The list of horribles continued. Demonstrations and civil unrest gripped the city.
In September, the skies above Oregon turned a noxious orange when wildfires roared down just about every major river valley on the west side of the Cascades. Then came the ice storm in February which cut electricity to hundreds of thousands and paralyzed the Portland area.
“What’s next,” Helmer asked himself, “locusts?”
Though estimates vary widely, hundreds of thousands of businesses failed nationally. Hotels, airlines, and restaurants and bars were among the hardest hit. In Oregon, proprietors’ income fell a devastating 20% while unemployment surged to an unprecedented 13.2%.
At the same time, a rather remarkable trend began to emerge. Thanks in part to a massive federal assistance program, businesses survived. Some thrived.
By early this year, it became apparent that business failures did not measure up to initial fears. Thanks to a ban on foreclosures and evictions, bankruptcies actually decreased in 2020.
There were even clear signs of optimism, and not just because of the vaccines. New business formation actually increased last year.
And Helmer remains open for business.
“I’m hardened,” he said. “I often think of my great-grandfather getting through the depression and I feel like I could get through just about anything.”
‘People are genuinely fearful’
Harsch Investment Properties manages millions of square feet of industrial, office and retail space all over the West Coast.
When the pandemic hit, tenants reached out to Harsch CEO Jordan Schnitzer in unprecedented numbers begging for help.
“We got 850 requests for rent relief and we cut more than 400 deals,” he said.
The concessions cost Harsch more than $2 million. But Schnitzer said it was only fair.
“Yes, it’s a financial issue,” he said. “But it’s also a moral issue. Our tenants have paid a lot of rent and they’ve been really loyal.”
One year since Oregon’s stay home order
Harsch manages 28 million square feet throughout the West. It’s difficult everywhere, Schnitzer said. But it’s particularly problematic right here in Portland. For the local real estate industry, the big, outrageous story of 2020 is not the pandemic, it’s the stunning decline of downtown Portland and the inability of city hall to do anything about it.
“Between the homeless, the demonstrations, the looting and boarded up windows, and tax increases on top of that … It’s like the city of Portland couldn’t write a worse script,” Schnitzer said.
Mike Holzgang, a real estate broker with more than 25 years of experience, is an old hand at the downtown tour. For years it was an easy sell – the city was vibrant, beautiful, green.
It’s a different story these days. Holzgang said he recently helped a potential tenant from overseas inspect several local office buildings. To get inside one of the buildings you had to run the gauntlet through an encampment of homeless people.
One of the company officials just wouldn’t do it, out of fear or indignation or both.
“The problem has become so insidious, it’s driven patrons out,” Holzgang said. “People are genuinely fearful. And it’s not panic, it’s rational. It’s chasing people out of our city, it’s chasing people out of our state.”
AJ Brown helps run LeadsRx, a small Portland software company.
The firm battled its way through the pandemic, through the remote working, the virtual chats. LeadsRx borrowed more than $235,000 through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which helped avoid layoffs.
A bigger challenge was worker safety. LeadsRx operated out of WeWork’s co-working space in Old Town. Shared offices posed a health problem in the pandemic era. Also, Brown and his partner wanted out of Old Town.
LeadsRX left its 900 square feet in Old Town in favor of 2,200 square feet south of downtown along South Macadam Avenue.
“Our lease wasn’t up till April, but it was just unworkable for us to stay downtown,” Brown said. “The riots, the homeless, the garbage… We’d just had enough of the smell of urine in the air.”
The Standard has for decades been a pillar of downtown Portland. About 2,000 of the insurance company’s 3,000 employees work downtown in two large buildings.
Last March, it sent them all home.
The pandemic hurt The Standard’s bottom line. Vacancies soared in its downtown properties. The Stevens-Ness stationary company, a McDonald’s, a 7-Eleven, a Starbucks and an independent coffee shop were among its longtime tenants that closed permanently.
But in terms of Standard’s financial stability, the pandemic and other problems of 2020 did not pose an existential threat. The real issue at The Standard has been one of culture.
The company learned that a dispersed workforce poses enormous challenges. Some employees love working from home and dread the thought of resuming the daily commute to their cubicle. Others struggle. They miss the camaraderie and teamwork.
People are working too much. When the computer and cellphone are in the next room rather than downtown, it’s hard to stay away.
“Now work is at the dining room table,” said Bob Speltz, The Standard’s senior director of community relations. “And for some it’s also their kids’ classroom, a day-care center and a pet grooming station.”
The Standard offered its employees more time off, it allowed people to roll over more of their paid time off from one year to the next. And it added some mental health care and a $400 allowance for every employee to outfit their home offices.
Last week, Standard informed most of its employees they would continue to work from home until at least Sept. 7.
‘We didn’t see daylight until 11:30’
Twenty-five miles and a universe away from downtown Portland, Garry Hansen runs Lady-Lane Farm, a dairy operation that boasts 70 dairy cows.
He sells milk under his own Garry’s Meadow Fresh label in old-fashioned glass bottles. He landed New Seasons as a customer. The high-end grocer is now his largest client.
When the pandemic hit, sales immediately plunged 30%. His prized glass bottles became hard to get because his grocer clients considered it unsafe to accept bottle returns.
But Lady-Lane doesn’t just rely on grocery stores. Hansen also is a regular at several area farmers’ markets. And recently, Lady-Lane opened its own retail operation at the farm. They’ve branched out into flavored milk, butter, and ice cream.
The Lady-Lane farmstand, as Hansen and his family call it, now generates 15% to 20% of sales, Hansen said.
The growing importance of the farm’s on-site retail operation made the events of September even more dangerous. Wildfires of unprecedented size were rampaging down the Clackamas and the Santiam drainages. The two giant blazes threatened to merge in the heavily forested foothills of southern Clackamas County,
The smoke was so thick, Hansen worried about health of his herd.
“That one morning, we didn’t see daylight until about 11:30 in the morning,” he recalls.
The farm got a lucky break when the heavy east wind that had been pushing the two huge fires in their direction eased. But spot fires were erupting all over the area. The so-called Spangler Road fire had jumped Highway 213 and was two miles away. Lady-Lane Farm was directly in its path.
Farmers and ranchers all over southern Clackamas County faced similar straits. Hansen had joined in a community effort to move various herds from farms in immediate danger. On Sept. 10, it was his turn. The flames were too close.
It was dark by the time they got the last of the cattle loaded in to trailers and hauled to safer locations in Woodburn and Gervais.
In the end, the pandemic proved much more damaging to Lady-Lane’s financial situation than the fires. But thanks in part to a federal relief loan, Hansen was able to keep his six employees and keep his farm intact.
Oregonians seek a makeover
COVID-19 fundamentally changed most Americans’ idea of recreation.
Air travel was out of the question, which canceled an untold number of vacations. Closer to home, the gym and swimming pool were closed. The ballet, the author readings at Powell’s Books and the movie at the local multiplex were also closed or cancelled. Even the weekly pickup basketball game fell victim to the virus.
Stir-crazy Americans took up other pursuits more in keeping with era of social distancing. Camping, bicycling, kayaking became red-hot. Curtis Trailers, a venerable Portland-based seller of campers and RVs, enjoyed its best month ever last June as novice campers hit the road.
Nautilus, the Vancouver-based maker of stationary bikes and other home workout equipment, posted the best quarter in its history in December. Fourth quarter sales hit an all-time high of $189 million, more than double the prior year.
Many Oregonians, stuck at home all day, decided it was past time for a drastic makeover.
Scott and Carol Director run Scott Director’s Custom Furniture in Beaverton. Their business collapsed last spring after the shutdown orders. The couple took to telephoning their customers — their goal was 30 per day — urging them to consider buying a table, a hassock, some wall art, anything.
“It was very stressful, there were so many unknowns,” Carol Director said.
But things turned around.
“People weren’t traveling, they were sitting home,” Carol Director said. “They looked at their furniture and saw that they needed a new chair or couch.”
“We had a reasonable year especially given we were closed two months,” Scott Director said.
‘Nobody diets during a pandemic’
In the forced isolation of the pandemic, some Oregonians wanted nothing more than to splurge on something a little special.
Zoe Buckley has been selling her own handmade cheesecakes at a number of local farmers’ markets since 2005. She offers 32 flavors — everything from classic New York to key lime to tiramisu. A 3-inch, individually sized cheesecake goes for $7, or four for $25.
The year got off to horrendous start when markets shut down and it became difficult to impossible to buy sugar and some other ingredients in bulk.
When the neighborhood markets reopened, Buckley was there, wearing a state-of-the-art N95 facemask and fearing the worst.
Customers lined up in numbers she’d never before seen, she remembers, her voice thick with emotion. They bought as many cheesecakes as she could bake and also gave her tips and tearful thanks just for showing up.
“I was humbled,” Buckley said. “The lesson is nobody diets during a pandemic. We were at a time when we couldn’t go anywhere, we couldn’t do anything. But we sure could treat ourselves to a fancy cheesecake.”