The Half-Billion Dollar Swoosh

nike1Every city seems to have its Martin Luther King Jr Avenue, or Boulevard. It typically is in the most dilapidated part of town. You can draw your own conclusion from that. When Portland renamed Union Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard, there was an outcry, claiming that “Union” was part of the city’s heritage, even though no one was able to come up with what the significance of the name was. About the same time as the name change, the city decided to upgrade the desolate avenue, lined with empty stores and decaying buildings. They improved the street, building a shrubbery-lined median along its length. The crown jewel was a brand new, block-long retail strip. It housed several retail businesses, including a café and a Nike outlet store.

The attractive, leafy median was built at the expense of on-street parking. Within a year, Nike was the only business still operating in the complex. The Nike brand was strong enough to attract some customers into the neighborhood, and it remained the sole business on the block to keep its doors open through years of what must have been a money-losing operation for the internationally successful company. Nike had the financial wherewithal and determination to keep the faint flame of business alive on MLK.

Today, MLK Jr Blvd. is rapidly gentrifying, with thriving businesses and new residential buildings lining the avenue. The Nike store has expanded exponentially and archrival Adidas has built its U.S. headquarters close by.

Phil Knight co-founded Blue Ribbon Sports with Bill Bowerman, his University of Oregon track coach, in 1964. He began by literally selling running shoes out of his car at track meets around the Pacific Northwest. Blue Ribbon Sports later changed its name to Nike.

Phil Knight is well known for his financial support of University of phil-knightOregon athletics, especially football.

He most recently was in the news with the announcement of his $500 million gift to the to U of O to develop a center for scientific research.

Last year, the Oregon Health & Science University stated it had met Knight’s 2013 half-a-billion-dollar challenge: if they raised $500 million for a cancer research center in two years, he would match it. OHSU did it – with the help of Columbia Sportswear Chairwoman Gert Boyle’s $100 million. The Knight Cancer Center is currently under construction in Portland.

Knight’s largesse is not limited to Oregon. A graduate of Stanford Business School, he donated $105 million to that institution in 2006. Earlier this year Stanford announced his contribution of $400 million to a $750 million project to fund a project beginning in 2018 offering full tuition and board annually to 100 graduate students who will work on issues like poverty and climate change.

Nike comes under harsh criticism for its exploiting of third-world labor in its factories. New York Times reporter, and fellow Oregonian, Nicholas Kristof, has a different view.

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