Founded on the ideas of people, planet and profit, Ecotrust has supported civic progress and regeneration in Portland and beyond for more than 20 years. Monocle meets the man behind the mission: Spencer Beebe.
On a stroll through the reborn warehouse districts that have played host to Portland, Oregon’s renaissance, it’s easy to forget how far these neighbourhoods have come since the late 1990s. That’s about the time Spencer Beebe was trying to convince the board at Ecotrust, the non-profit organisation he founded in 1991, to buy a rundown warehouse in what was then Portland’s fledgling Pearl District and fix it up. “Most of them didn’t really get it,” says Beebe of his board, who feared they were getting too far from their mission as a development group.
Regardless of the board’s hesitation he persisted with the naysayers – partly because, Beebe jokingly admits, he was tired of people telling him he couldn’t bring his pooch to work. “I said ‘To hell with it, we’ll buy our own building and I’ll bring my dog to work if I feel like it.’”
Today, Beebe is Ecotrust’s chairman. The 68-year-old is a wiry-haired firecracker of a man who has become a driver of business and civic progress not just in his native Portland but the whole region. He admits, “Every important thing that I have done was done surrounded by sceptics and doubters.” Regardless, he has often found ways to prove his ideas are worth considering. Those ideas, based on a “triple bottom line” that takes into account people, planet and profit, are what Beebe has built Ecotrust upon.
“[We] are a non-profit holding company orchestrating the resources and activities of a variety of entities,” says Beebe. During the past 23 years Ecotrust has turned $80m (€59m) in donations and grants to forestry, fisheries, food, farm and urban programmes into more than $800m (€587m) in capital assets at work in communities from Alaska to California.
Beebe is a fourth-generation Oregonian, raised in a family with ties to the once vibrant timber industry. A self-professed “hardcore, born-and-raised nature nut”, his life’s work has always been deeply influenced by his love for a fishing pole and a tent.
Conservation inspired much of his early career but this changed when he convinced well-known author and urbanist, the late Jane Jacobs, to join Ecotrust’s board in the mid-1990s. Jacobs would help him understand that economically healthy urban areas were a critical part of his vision for a sustainable region. “Successful economies, as Jane Jacobs pointed out, actually work in the same way that nature does,” says Beebe.
On a sunny day in May, monocle joins Beebe on the observation deck on the top of Ecotrust’s base, the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center – named after building’s main benefactor Jean Vollum, an heiress to a Portland tech fortune. Spencer forged a relationship with Vollum and helped her understand how she could be a part of making a better economy. She donated $2.5m and Ecotrust was able to buy the warehouse that would become its headquarters.
The structure, designed with the natural environment in mind, is proof that Ecotrust has one foot in the country and another in the city. “Instead of just products stored in a warehouse getting shipped around the region, you have a place that becomes a living room for a larger conversation about not just goods but good ideas and services,” Beebe says of the converted warehouse as he stands with his golden retriever, Bobcat, in the main corridor. “[It’s] a new economy.”
On the building’s ground floor an espresso kiosk, pizza shop and café, as well as a retail outlet for outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, encourage city-goers to use the public areas. “It’s a place that was made for people to not just come and shop but to connect. This location makes a unique community,” says Patagonia shop manager Aaron Altshuler, whose shop was the first tenant here. Beebe says that went a long way to attracting others, especially in the early days when the nearby parks, businesses and condo buildings hadn’t yet been built.
Not only did the businesses in and around Beebe’s hub find “a knowledge economy connected to quality of life”, they also discovered a source of capital: ShoreBank Pacific. Co-founded by Beebe and his team, the mission of the bank was simple: fund urban and rural organisations that were seen as risky to traditional lenders. To reduce risk the bank made sure it had the right local and industrial knowledge about the businesses in which it invested.
“We tried to hire people who really knew these industries so they were industry people not bankers,” says retired ceo Dave Williams. The current bank, now known as One PacificCoast Bank, is the result of a 2011 merger with a California-based institution. While the name is different, the mission is aligned with that of the original: owned by a non-profit foundation, the bank is set up to redistribute all profits into the community it serves.
There are many examples of Portland businesses that have benefited from Beebe’s various brands of city investing. Chinook Book, a local favourite, is an annual guide and coupon book that connects consumers with sustainable local businesses. “The first outside investment that we ever got was from Ecotrust,” says co-founder and publisher Nik Blosser. “That helped give us the confidence and credibility to keep growing the programme.” Now 80,000 consumers use Chinook Book in the Portland area and the brand has expanded to six other markets around the US.
Beebe has other neighbourhood projects in the offing. Ecotrust has plans to transform a $2.5m (€1.8m) warehouse in southeast Portland into a hub where food-related businesses can launch. “We would love to support the makers movement and people who want to start businesses around making local stuff,” Beebe says of the project. In much the same way the hub across town saw a revitalised neighbourhood grow around it, the hope is that this one will too.
Sitting in his office high above the Pearl District, Portland native Dan Wieden, another Ecotrust board member and co-founder of acclaimed advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, tells monocle about first meeting Beebe. He recalls his receptionist annnouncing someone at the front desk who wanted to take a look at the office – a newly renovated former warehouse. Wieden remembers the stranger being struck by the open atrium at the building’s core. Beebe said it reminded him of a tree’s canopy; a place where things gather to make life and move forward.
The ad man didn’t quite know what to think at first but soon realised Beebe saw the world differently to most. This led to a longstanding friendship between the two who now share a common vision for Portland and the greater region. “Maybe [Portland] is a place to do something important,” says Wieden. “That is one of the things Spencer has brought about: this magnetic pull to get people together and shock the world.”