Columbia Sportswear’s chief executive officer Tim Boyle has come under fire for his op-ed voicing concern about transient individuals hassling, harassing and threatening employees near the company’s Sorel office.
In May, Columbia unveiled a new office in downtown Portland for its Sorel brand above the company’s flagship on Southwest Broadway. This spring, about 40 staffers moved into the space with the potential of another 40 joining them. In 2000, Columbia acquired Sorel out of bankruptcy for $8 million and in that time sales have jumped to $213 million.
Boyle wrote in his open letter in the Oregonian: “Our celebration of our new offices ended swiftly. We were immediately receiving reports from employees that they were being hassled, harassed and threatened by individuals near our office. A few days ago, one of our employees had to run into traffic when a stranger outside our office followed her and threatened to kill her.”
In addition to having staffers “menaced by individuals camping in the doorway” of the building, Boyle said. “Our employees have had so many car break-ins downtown that we have started referring to parking in Portland as our ‘laptop donation program.’”
The company expects to decide whether to relocate Sorel by early January. Columbia executives said Boyle is not commenting further, and referenced three recent interviews, including a Dec. 6 radio one. In that, Boyle noted that the problem of people defecating in Sorel’s atrium on a daily basis has only gotten worse in the prior week. Noting how human feces caused an outbreak of Hepatitis A among 500-plus people in San Diego and 20 deaths, Boyle said, “We just can’t have our employees unsafe in any part of the world.”
He also noted that the staffer who was chased into the street into traffic after being threatened was a New York-based employee who knows about living in an urban environment. Walking with two other staffers who are based in Boston and Philadelphia, Boyle described them as “tough people,” referring to their city mindedness. “At the end of the day, the safety of your employees is tantamount. I can’t attract people to work for the company in Portland or keep people if it is in unsafe conditions.”
Boyle’s online outcry also said, “Given these experiences, it is a relief when the only thing we are dealing with is the garbage and human waste by our front door. Think about that for a minute.”
The company has since hired more security personnel and has invested in more secure doors in the Sorel office. Having spent most of his life in Portland, Boyle said, “It would have been much easier to have quietly left the city with the Sorel group. Other businesspeople need to speak up regarding this topic.” The company has faced two protests since the op-ed ran.
Nearly 4,200 people were counted homeless in Portland on a February night earlier this year, according to Transition Projects, which helps people secure and maintain permanent housing. The city’s 30.8 percent rate of chronic homelessness — defined as having a disabling condition and being homeless for a year or longer — is twice the national average. Rising rents and a shortage of affordable housing are factors, as well as the state’s last-place ranking in the U.S. for access to mental health care.
Homelessness in Portland increased more than 10 percent between 2015 and 2017, compared to increases of 39 percent in Oakland, 30 percent in Los Angeles and 16 percent in Seattle. Columbia will continue to provide lots of support for groups that help the community, Boyle said.
While some businesspeople have sent messages of thanks to Boyle, he said there have been some “frankly disconcerting” e-mails and letters from others who have asked, ‘What do you even care about? We’re not ever going downtown. It’s too dangerous.’ And that’s bad.”
Portland Mayor Tim Wheeler has pledged to increase the number of police officers walking the beat and to hire more park rangers to patrol city parks. He has also enhanced the city’s Clean and Safe efforts to eliminate trash, biohazards and drug needles, expanding neighborhood graffiti abatement programs, and starting a program to get hazardous and abandoned RVs off its roads. Homelessness is a delicate subject in the city. In his recent radio interview, Boyle mentioned how he never used the word. Portlanders prefer to call it “houselessness.”
Sandra McDonough, president and ceo of the Portland Business Alliance, said in a statement to WWD Monday that holiday activity downtown has been very strong, events have been well attended, retailers report positive sales and early analysis of annual pedestrian counts show that holiday visitors downtown have increased.
“We’re encouraged that Mayor Wheeler is implementing additional tools to address livability issues downtown and in neighborhoods, including expanded police walking patrols. We have gotten positive feedback from retailers and customers about the visibility of these additional police patrols,” she said. “While our downtown surveys show that most workers and residents feel safe, over the past few years there have been growing concerns expressed about livability challenges that impact the experiences of many. We appreciate the efforts of Mayor Wheeler to address the livability challenges so that community standards are upheld and Portland feels safe and inviting to everyone, especially during the holiday season.”
Portland’s Resistance, the activist group that organized the recent protests, has opted not to take its message to social media since that could potentially result in Columbia closing its store and employees might not get paid, said cofounder Gregory McKelvey. Shoppers were given literature that addressed “how the owner was basically helping to criminalize houselessness in our community,” he said. “Pushing people out of sight and out of mind doesn’t provide an incentive for people with power to solve the housing crisis that we have in our city. We also don’t think we should be criminalizing anything houseless people need to do to survive. Policing is not a solution to livability issues. We need to deal with homelessness with compassion. That means increasing mental health services and addiction services. We also need to provide solutions to our housing crisis such as rent-controlled and rent-stabilization solutions.”
While Boyle has called for a wider discussion among business leaders and city officials to help find a solution, Portland’s Resistance is not calling for a boycott of Columbia brands at this time, McKelvey said.