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Thursday, December 23, 2004  

News: Downtown shooting scares holiday horde

A Portland panhandler will not be doing it again. He was killed earlier today in front of the imposing Meier and Frank department store downtown. The 12-story art deco structure, which houses the Pacific Northwest's premier department store, is in the heart of the city, across from historical Pioneer Courthouse Square. Though Nordstrom, which began as a shoe store, may be the best known chain headquartered in the region, Meier and Frank preceded it as a department store. The Oregonian reports on the shooting.

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A man was shot to death outside a busy downtown department store Thursday in front of horrified holiday shoppers and a suspect was quickly arrested, police said.

Witnesses say the gunman fired three shots at the victim, then calmly walked away.

"I heard one shot, a pause, and then two more shots, really loud," said Sandy Sprague, who operates a flower cart about 30 feet from the shooting scene.

Security workers from Meier & Frank ran out of the store after hearing the shots, called police and administered first aid to the victim, she said.

The Portland Police Department has not confirmed the details, but has acknowledged taking a suspect into custody.

It seems inevitable. Put together:

(1) Aggressive panhandlers; and

(2) Easy access to guns.

The result is bound to be volatile eventually. Having encountered my share of panhandlers who demand, rather than ask for money, I know the frustration that ensues. Nor is money always at issue. Lewd remarks to women are common. So, are threats of violence. Experts say a quarter to a third of the chronically homeless are mentally ill. Evidence of that dysfunctionality is apparent to anyone who lives in a city. In Portland, the situation has been brought home by a series of murders by street people over the years.

But, the problems that result in an incident like today's are two-pronged. The typical response to aggressive panhandlers is to get away from them as promptly as possible. Pedestrians either give them a wide berth or retreat when they encounter abuse. The easy availability of handguns makes a less peaceable response more likely to occur. Not enough is known about the episode to say whether the gunman had a permit to carry the weapon, or, whether the panhandler did something threatening beforehand. But, it seems likely the situation could have been defused without either person being killed, but for access to the gun.

The blogger at Tim Riley's City Desk sees the irony in this holiday happening.

A tarp was thrown over the dead body, so pedestrians could continue to walk past the grizzly scene to catch up on last minute shopping.

I suspect officials at Meier and Frank are furious for reasons of public relations and timing. Some suburbanites are already wary of entering the big, bad city. But, the lights, sights and sales lure them downtown during the Christmas season. The last thing retailers want is for shoppers' paranoia to seem justified. Flying bullets can create just that impression.

Like many a tall, impressive downtown department store, Meier and Frank has not been able to attract sufficient business to support the imposing building. Suburban stores produce better sales per square foot of space. The chain's owners, May Department Stores Co., of Ohio, have been seeking a way to save the building, erected in 1909, for years. Plans are underfoot to convert the top seven floors of the structure into a hotel, while making the other five floors a new and improved shopping emporium. That would mean using 230,000 square feet of the 665,000-square-foot building for Meier and Frank and the rest for a Marriott Hotel. The shooting out front is a timely reminder of why downtown stores are imperiled.

Reasonably related

~ Meier and Frank's dilemma has been repeated throughout the nation. Read more about the problems of maintaining a downtown department store:

In the Portland Tribune.

In today's Oregonian.

~ Christmas cheer? I will try to produce some before the day arrives.

11:00 PM