The Limits of Portland's Craft Economy

Charles Heying, the author of Brews to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy, covers Portland’s indie fashion, book and music sector, its recycling/reuse businesses, craft businesses, bike sector, technology businesses and non-profits.

His thesis is that Portland represents a return to the craftsmanship that defined the pre-industrial age. Heying mostly denies that the artisan economy produces high-end goods for a limited market, and sees it as a broader shift in our society away from mass production. A critic of Richard Florida’s theories, he denies that cities should make cosmetic changes to attract well educated professionals. Instead, he sees the artisan economy as something that emerges from below, rather than imposed from above by local officials.

But there are some problems with this thesis. Portland has many coffee roasters, but it also has many Starbucks. Silicon Forest, Portland’s tech hub, includes IBM, Intel and Techtronics. None of these firms are small, artisan firms. There are indie designers in Portland but Nike and Columbia Sportswear and Adidas also call Portland home. Sure, twelve percent of people in Portland bike, but that means a lot rely on the car as a primary mode of transportation. And only twelve percent of the beer consumed in Portland is craft beer. If 'small is beautiful' really defines this city, then why are there so many big companies lurking around?

Artisanal enterprises come along with the advancement of information technology, but will in no way replace mass production. I don’t think there will be many small-scale train, airline or automobile companies. The mini-economy represents a side of us that doesn’t want the creative impulse to die, and wants a more socially responsible model, but it won’t shove aside the big model anytime soon.

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Seattle and Portland are provincial cities

Seattle and Portland are very provincial cities, along with Bend, Oregon. Reason: It's impossible to start a business due to high real estate costs from the Washington and Oregon growth management acts, and the high costs of living due to smart growth. Therefore, there are only a handful of large companies, and very few widely known small companies. Due to high taxes, mom and pops go out of business easily, and what you have left are businesses that don't generate very much revenue, such as various artistic and musical endeavors. As a young professional, I would prefer cities without growth management, no impact fees, and no smart growth. It's a lot easier to start a business in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, where there is no smart growth and no impact fees on new commercial developments.

small vs. big

Mr. Siebert presents a case that Portland's home-grown artisanship is very small. Yet it is larger than most home-grown economies, at least of cities of Portland's scale. 12 percent is nothing to sneeze at. And look at the hard work it took to get that far.

Rather than look at it as a percent of whole, it may be more significant to look at the qualitative role of the localized, artisanal economy. Small in size, perhaps, but does it play a leadership role that the "big" companies capitalize upon when they see a definite direction? Would big brewers be offering small "craft" beers if small hand-crafted brewers weren't serving up something better?

While the craft economy may be small in Portland's GDP, it may offer a kind of lead/lag relationship to the larger companies mentioned in the article.

Richard T. Reep, AIA, LEED-AP
Adjunct Professor, Rollins College
Senior Designer, VOA Associates Inc.


Mr. Sibert is correct that "small" will not displace "big." But in terms of job creation, "small" is where it's at. "Big" will increasingly be computerized, automated, and cheap. "Big" music will be free. "Big" beer, shoes, and cell phones will be dirt cheap. But fun, interesting, and value-added will come from "small," and that's where the jobs of the future will be. Precisely because "big" is cheap, people can and will want to spend money on "small."

So I think the artisan economy is more important than Mr. Sibert suggests. But thanks for pointing me to Mr. Heying's book. If it's not too expensive I'm going to read that.

Great insight. Creative destruction, wealth and incomes

DanKing, I am really impressed with this insight. Is there any literature, or any specific writer that is identified with this line of thinking?

It is one of the paradoxes of economic development, that massive swathes of people's livelihoods are rendered extinct by new waves of progress, but this is associated with growth in productivity and incomes. Bangladesh has successfully protected its workforces who are heavily employed in hand weaving of carpets, from the job losses that mechanisation would cause.

But Bangladesh is poorer than ever. BECAUSE of this, I suggest, not "in spite of" it.

These days people are obsessed with "what happens to all the jobs that technology is destroying". It is very hard to get our heads around the mechanisms that will have everyone employed and better off than ever as a result. I think what you just said will be part of it.