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Business Outreach Program helps businesses benefit from light rail project
Business Outreach Program helps businesses benefit from light rail project

While expansion of light rail service along downtown Portland's bus mall will ultimately bring more customers downtown, construction posed a temporary challenge to small businesses along 5th and 6th avenues.  Portland State University's Business Outreach Program, which provides technical assistance and business consulting services to local small businesses, teamed with TriMet, the Portland Development Commission (PDC), and the City of Portland to assist businesses along the construction route.  The Portland Mall Business Support Program's goal was not only to help sustain businesses through construction but to provide them support that could improve their business post-construction.

As part of the Portland Mall Business Support Program, the Business Outreach Program's charge was to assist eligible businesses in weathering any disruption caused by the light rail project, strengthen their business operations, and position them to take advantage of marketing opportunities for the opening of the new light rail line in September 2009.  The Business Outreach Program and its partners targeted the most vulnerable ground floor small businesses that could least afford even a temporary decline in revenues.  Since implementation of this project in 2006, the Business Outreach Program has provided services to 32 businesses and has packaged $235,000 in loans to 10 of those businesses.

"The PSU Business Outreach Program's insight and experience were instrumental in making the Portland Mall Business Support Program a success," says Ann Becklund, Community Affairs Director of TriMet.  "We are confident that the positive outcomes for both TriMet and the businesses impacted by light rail construction would not have been possible without the professionalism and expertise of the Business Outreach Program."

Backspace, an Internet café, art gallery and event space on 5th Avenue, took advantage of Portland Mall Business Support Program to refine its business plan and grow its customer base.  With light rail tracks being installed in front of the café in the summer of 2007, Backspace owner Eric Robison learned of the Small Business Support Program through TriMet's Community Affairs team.

"I was raised in a very conservative household, where it was all by your own bootstraps," Robison said. "So, it was surprising to have someone from TriMet come in and say, ‘How can we help you?'"  The program took a fresh look at the Backspace business plan, adding pricing analysis of the café's goods and services, a technology analysis for the Internet side of the business and a marketing analysis.  Robison also applied for and received loans to help carry out the strategies outlined in the revised business plan and to prepare his business for the new opportunities the future MAX Green Line will bring to his block. Today, Backspace is thick with customers interested in its vegan fare, online network gaming opportunities and all-ages event space showcasing local bands.

Since it was founded in 1994, the Business Outreach Program has helped more than 420 small businesses throughout Portland, including emerging, minority and women-owned businesses, achieve their potential while providing students with opportunities for community-based learning.  Past clients have included Ruby Jewel Treats, DiPrima Dolce, Ground Kontrol, and AJ Java and Roasting.  The Business Outreach Program has also provided hands-on learning experiences to more than 1,300 business students, who carry out the program's mission by providing services to businesses under the guidance of professional management counselors.  Services include business plan development, marketing plan development, pro bono legal services through a partnership with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, human resource support, operations assistance, product cost analysis, business assessment, accounting system set-up and training, and student consulting teams.  The Business Outreach Program receives support from the City of Portland, the Portland Development Commission, Portland State University and private donations from corporations and individuals.

To learn more about the Business Outreach Program, visit their website at www.sba.pdx.edu/bop