15 Fascinating Oregonians

If there’s a theme for this year’s 15 Fascinating Oregonians, it would have to be energy. Pure human energy. The 15 individuals in the pages ahead exude energy. Their efforts and accomplishments light up the world around them. And lucky for us, they all live in Oregon, in towns big and small around the state. We hope that reading their stories will compel you — to think bolder, to work harder, to act fearlessly, to help generously, to try mightily, to write honestly, to aim higher, to believe in the impossible, to achieve your dreams — because these 15 fascinating people really are just average Oregonians. If they can do it; you can do it. That’s what every one of them would tell you.

Below is a small sampling of the 2008 15 Fascinating Oregonians …

Bryan Sims
By Alaina Buller

Bryan Sims was faced with the reality of money at an early age. At 14, he watched his parents struggle to pay exorbitant medical bills and lawyer fees as a result of a car accident. After Sept. 11, his dad lost his job and had difficulties finding a new one.

Sims knew what he had to do. He might not be able to remedy the immediate situation, but he promised himself he would become successful in life. He knew he had to make enough money to support the people he loved.

So he dove in head first. Sims started reading everything he could on business, finance, investing, marketing. At the time he worked as a janitor at a local athletic club for $8 an hour. Using his newfound knowledge, Sims invested his meager paycheck in the stock market.

And when his high school business class required him to write a business plan, he started a teen investment club. Almost 45 students invested nearly $25,000 from allowances and part-time jobs in the stock market.

“We had people who were football captains, people who were Chess Champions, people who normally had nothing in common, but the one thing they all had in common was money,” Sims says. “Everybody has to pay bills. And when the person sitting next to you can help you make money, everybody came together.”

They grew to be the largest investing club in the nation. Time magazine once called the club asking them to predict the economic impact of Sept. 11.

As his parents’ financial situation worsened, Sims knew it was time to live up to his promise. He wanted to take the same concept of his club — making investing interesting to young people — and broaden it to a national level. Sims created a business plan for a lifestyle money magazine for young adults by young adults. He left college to focus entirely on the endeavor.

Today brass magazine, based in Corvallis, is in its fifth year, has 500,000 readers nationwide, employs 37 people, and works with 190 credit unions across 39 states. And Sims, at age 24, runs the entire operation.

Though the business grew quickly, the path to success was not necessarily a smooth one. Sims was recently the keynote speaker for a crowd of 1,500 credit union board members at a National Center for Credit Unions conference. He shared his experience of attempting to secure original investors — a goal he tackled with his dad, currently the chief operations officer of brass.

“Keep in mind, this is the middle of 2003. People are not investing in blue chip stocks, let alone a lifestyle money magazine based out of Corvallis, Oregon, started by a 19-year-old dropout and his 53-year-old unemployed dad, who, by the way, have no experience doing this,” he told the audience. “Would anybody in here like to invest?”

With a little persistence, they were able to secure eight investors from the 200 people they spoke with. The investors included two stockbrokers, a former doctor, a former teacher, a real estate developer, a bus driver who won a lawsuit, and two Japanese onion farmers from eastern Oregon — quite the crew. But they all believed in the project, and Sims and his dad began publishing in February 2004. Since the first magazine rolled off the press, Sims has expanded the business to reach out to readers in a variety of ways, which include a blog and podcast on their website. But he is probably most proud of the brass Student Program.

Currently brass is distributing a student edition of the magazine to every public high school in New York and Wisconsin. They also provide teachers with lesson plans and a social networking website. In August, brass will be launching their student program in Oregon public high schools.

Sims cited a survey by Visa in 2005 as one of his main inspirations for this project. The survey found 74 percent of parents of high school students were more concerned about their kids’ financial habits and ability to handle money than they were about drug and alcohol use.

“We’re really hoping to tackle this problem of educating young people about money,” Sims says, “which particularly now, more than ever before, is on people’s minds.”

DJ Wilson
By Lisa Baker

Members of mainstream news outlets don’t want you to see the hand-wringing. The panic.

But it’s there under the surface as newspapers and local broadcasters battle with a ridiculous amount of competition.

The fact is, in economic terms, the supply of news outlets via Internet, satellite dish and cable is so plentiful that even steep demand for news can’t keep circulation or ratings where they need to be to make a decent buck.

The advertising dollar no longer goes in a single chunk to the local newspaper and the local broadcast outlet. It’s migrated to cable outlets, niche and specialty publications, a plethora of Internet news sites, and search engines.

Where is the advertiser? Same place the audience is: everywhere.

Worse, news is no longer something that’s produced on a schedule. News-on-demand is the current mantra.

It’s why broadcast and print outlets have hatched online versions of themselves that can be accessed on laptops at the local hot-brown-liquid outlet or on cell phones while in a meeting.

But it’s not good enough to be everywhere all the time. You’ve got to look good doing it to capture the eye of a mobile audience that’s already steeped in graphics and clicking with every breath. And, you need to be interactive — engage the viewer in polls, blogs, forums. What about non-news news? Gardening tips, recipes, home improvement ideas — what about those?

The mission, in short, is for the local TV station to be all things to all people at all times.

Ridiculous. Can’t be done. Like snowboarding in an avalanche.

The whole idea would make anyone panic.

But then you listen to DJ Wilson, KGW’s newly minted president and general manager, and you believe that all things are possible.

Wilson’s cheerful certainty makes it appear that she’s done all this leading edge stuff before. Dozens of times.

Her certainty comes in part from three decades in the business, an attraction to risk-taking (she still Rollerblades), and the kind of excess energy — enthusiastic, but intense — that has a way of moving the immovable.

Wilson’s intensity finds a perfect foil at Belo Corp’s KGW where there is a strange penchant for planning — planning being something foreign to the news world, which is typically a seat-of-the-pants operation.

In her hands, KGW will be the first Portland station to make a serious run at becoming a big city media venture. Changing its name recently from KGW-TV to KGW Media Group, the station has already telegraphed its intention to grow beyond the local state of the art.

Its website, rather than a more immediate version of newscasts or a tease to a newscast, has developed its own identity and presence, fully formed and complete.

And weeks ago, the station launched the first local high-definition broadcast with a strategic and well-planned promotional roll-out. The move to HD was no trivial matter: It was the kind of project — 10 miles of cable and 500 new pieces of equipment — that would overwhelm any staff. Wilson likened the conversion to overhauling a car while it’s traveling at 90 miles per hour.

Her kind of project.

Wilson says the change is not just cosmetic. “It allows us to have a new level of detail in weather graphics and story coverage that brings visual impact to what we’re saying. It tells the story better.” And it engages viewers in the story: “We are, first and foremost, a journalism company,” she says. “We are all about content.”

Content aside, the biggest gamble is yet to come: launching a studio window on Pioneer Courthouse Square in time to coincide with the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics this summer. Modeled on a similar setup at NBC’s “Today Show,” observers will watch — and be watched — live from windows on the square.

There could, of course, be complications. Technical difficulties. Ill-mannered passers-by. But like everything else, Wilson and her crew have planned for that, for the image and sound delays that will prevent a broadcast faux pas, for a backdrop, should it be needed. Even if they hadn’t, chances are you wouldn’t find Wilson in a panic.

Instead, she says, “It’s all so exhilarating … so much fun.”

Randal O’Toole
By Lisa Baker

What went wrong with Randal O’Toole?

It’s what urban planners everywhere are wondering. After all, he was brought up right (or, technically, left). He grew up in Portland, the son of two dedicated liberal Democrats in the very lap of Oregon’s urban planning revolution, where the work of the state’s commitment to land-use control could be seen on the ground. He attended an accredited urban planning program at the University of Oregon, of all places.

He was a self-described environmentalist working for the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit group that champions government regulation and control.

Even his favored mode of transport — two-wheeled — was correct.

Surely O’Toole was destined for great things.

But then, inexplicably, he joined the other side. The allegedly lawless, heedless hurly- burly side that champions individual freedom over collectivism. The side that sees Portland not as a success story in livability but as constricted and repressed.

Worse, rather than keep his revelations to himself, O’Toole is shouting it from the rooftops, on the speaking circuit and in his books, excoriating the very fundamentals of urban planning that have won Oregon so much praise.

A senior fellow with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, Bandon resident O’Toole travels the country espousing the dangers of Oregon’s planning system. His publications favor free-market solutions, rather than government intervention, for everything from transportation to resource conservation.

He specifically blames urban planning, with its emphasis on herding the population into high-density zones while keeping rural lands as unpopulated as possible, as the primary cause of gridlock and air pollution.

In his first book, “The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths,” O’Toole pronounced sprawl “one of those invented problems. Low-density suburbanization — which is what people usually mean when they say ‘sprawl’ — not only is not responsible for most of the problems that its critics charge, it is the solution to many of the problems that sprawl opponents claim they want to solve … The war on sprawl is really a war on American lifestyles.”

He says the state’s limitations on buildable areas have made housing so expensive that average-wage Oregonians — especially in Portland — cannot afford it. He contrasts Portland with Houston, where looser development regulations make it possible to obtain a spacious house with a generous yard for half of what Portlanders pay for a pencil thin walk-up with a loin-cloth yard.

Portland unfair and unlivable? Unthinkable.

The suggestion seems to bring out the worst in his opponents. His commentaries have earned him the passionate enmity of many an urban planning fan and even prompted an angry Oregonian news profile in which the reporter herself joined O’Toole’s critics in bashing him for bashing Portland.

It would have been more pleasant for him had he stuck to the straight and narrow.

What prompted his walk on the wild side?

O’Toole says it was an innocent thing: He enrolled in an economics class. It was then that something in O’Toole changed, or, as some planners like to think, snapped.

“I realized that everything we learned in economics was based on data,” he says. “In economics, it’s modeling and testing models and refining models. I just realized it was the opposite of what we learned in urban planning, which were untested hypotheses and guesswork.”

Later, Metro announced plans to convert O’Toole’s former Portland neighborhood to a smart-growth model, increasing density and making it more “walkable.” Suddenly, it was no longer theory, but personal. With his help, the neighborhood turned back Metro’s plan. Since then, O’Toole has found his work cut out for him as other cities and other states embrace urban planning.

It is a daunting prospect for a civic critic, but O’Toole doesn’t mind.

“I always like to take the side of the underdog.”

BrainstormNW - April 2008

Follow Brainstorm NW on Facebook   Follow what is happening with Brainstorm NW through Twitter

Copyright  |   Disclaimer  |   Contact  |   Shopping