How Portland's Horrid Winter Storms Brought Small Businesses Together

A lonely upside to repeated batterings from snow and ice.

By Jason Buehrer February 23, 2017

Black wagon inside vfb4u1

Image: Black Wagon

Portlanders, friends, fellow citizens: this winter has tried to break us. The storms and ice of January and early February will live long in local infamy. (And there’s snow in the forecast as of the moment we’re posting this! Gaaah!)

To say nothing of the cabin fever and psychic damage, many of the small businesses that Portland champions are still chipping away at the losses incurred over the month that historically offers narrow margins at best. Various official orders to shelter in place and treacherous roadways kept many consumers indoors, affecting not only business owners’ bottom lines but their employees’ pocketbooks too.   

Typically, January is one of the slower months—we have good sales but we don’t have good margins,” says Sarah Shaoul, owner of Black Wagon, a toddler clothing and accessories retailer on North Mississippi Avenue. “We’re not making hardly anything, but we are moving a lot of product, which we didn’t get to do this time.”

The proverbial silver lining: businesses banded together to lift themselves—and their colleagues—through the storm.

Many snow-blasted businesses dispatched employees to clear sidewalks and scrape ice; others simply opened for stir-crazy locals looking for any kind of stimulation, and that alone was good for positive word of mouth. Shaoul took it a step further, and organized local business in her area to help entice people out of their homes.

“I started with the Mississippi business community, asking, 'Hey, do you want to offer this 10 percent discount on gift certificates through the end of the month?'” she says. “We worked together on it to co-promote it. I started off with 15 businesses. I would say we were up to sixty businesses within three or four days. Within 10 days we got up to 100.”

Mayor Ted Wheeler—whose administration essentially began with wintry slowdowns—has admitted that city’s response was less then stellar, and promised to do more. During the January snowstorm, Portland borrowed eight plows from Seattle, deploying a total of 63 along major roads and highways. In the weeks since the storm, Dan Saltzman, Portland’s transportation commissioner, signed a mutual aid agreement with Seattle to share equipment and workers during snow events. Saltzman also added $2.8 million to the proposed transportation budget to address future Snowmageddons.

While the January gift certificates are no longer on sale, a list of businesses that participated in the gift certificate program are posted on Sara Shaoul’s Black Wagon blog.

 “We didn’t see adequate snow removal on Mississippi,” says Shaoul. “What I did see was some awesome community.”

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