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Getting Active on Clusters: Portland, Ore.

We’ve been writing a lot recently about regional industry clusters and cluster policy, especially after our  fall “innovation clusters” event. Still, it’s always good to reiterate what, exactly, a cluster is, and to show that, rather than to tell it.

Our colleague Joe Cortright has done just that in completing some fascinating work describing a fine case-in-point: Portland, Ore.’s athletic and outdoor (A&O) industry cluster. In this work, undertaken for the Portland Development Commission and other state and regional partners, Joe has provided a cogent analysis of the size, scope, structure, and dynamics of a significant but not-well-recognized cluster in the process of defining itself.

Joe’s study shows how far one region has gone in turning a local predilection--an outdoor lifestyle--into a global business and how a local cluster reinforces that and drives local and national prosperity.

According to Cortright, the athletic and outdoor cluster in the Portland region--firms that design, develop, manufacture, market, distribute, and sell apparel, footwear, and gear for active outdoor recreation--consists of more than 300 firms and employs more than 14,000 Oregonians at an average wage of more than $80,000 annually. These firms include world-famous behemoths like Nike, Adidas, and Columbia Sportswear, but the cluster also includes about 3,200 self-employed individuals with sales of $100 million annually. Total statewide payroll in 2008 was nearly $1.2 billion.

Beyond these facts, the cluster is fascinating and illuminating for two timely economic reasons. First, the cluster is big and pays well, and so underscores the economic power of these concentrations of interconnected firms and other organizations.  If the United States is ever going to get back to large-scale job creation it is clusters like this that will drive it. 

Second, while local manufacturing is the exception rather than the rule in Portland’s activewear cluster, the cluster flourishes as a production-related activity, albeit on the “creative” side, with strong export presence. Cluster anchors Nike and Adidas sell a majority of their product outside North America while Columbia Sportswear is nearly 50 percent export. 

Given that international presence--along with its orientation toward green processes and heavy focus on innovation, design, and management--the activewear cluster in Portland well anticipates the emergence of the needed export-oriented, low-carbon, and innovation powered next economy.