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Mercy Corps headquarters opens in flurry of earthquake relief

United States, October 7, 2009

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Richard Read

The Oregonian
October, 2009

For years, Mercy Corps workers coordinating faraway disaster relief risked getting hit by the No. 43 bus as they dashed across Southwest First Avenue to attend meetings in separate buildings.

But this week, Paul Jeffery, Southeast Asia senior program manager for the Portland-based humanitarian organization, simply crossed a room inside Mercy Corps' gleaming new global headquarters while directing the nonprofit's Indonesian-earthquake response. Jeffery, a veteran international-aid worker, discussed fundraising with colleague Jeremy Barnicle as carpenters installed final features of the Old Town building opening Friday.

"We've got another day or so of private giving" toward the Indonesian disaster response, said Barnicle, Mercy Corps marketing and communications vice president. "Media coverage has already kind of bottomed out on the earthquake."

Friday's opening launches a new era for 30-year-old Mercy Corps, an expanding relief-and-development agency that has cut a higher profile abroad than in its own hometown. The international nonprofit, packing $277 million in annual global revenues and 3,700 workers in 38 nations, aims for a grand statement in Portland.

Its environmentally sustainable building in the city's re-emerging Skid Road district contains a street-front "action center" depicting life in developing countries and suggesting actions to fight poverty and hunger. Judging by a similar high-tech venture in lower Manhattan, Mercy Corps' interactive center will join OMSI, the zoo and the Children's Museum as a popular destination for school groups and adults.

No sooner had Mercy Corps moved into its $37 million building last month than fire swept a section of Jakarta, Indonesia, where the organization works. Then, earthquakes rocked Indonesia and Samoa.

The Portland workforce of 140 pumped late-night adrenaline doing what they live for, saving lives and bettering communities in some of the world's most desperate corners.

Jeffery found that the new headquarters' layout eased his job as he hustled to locate a missing aid team, order emergency supplies, win grant money and push paperwork through the home office.

"The fact we're all in one space is fantastic," Jeffery said. "It's going to make us a better more cohesive team."

Architect Thomas Hacker redesigned an 1890s building adjoining Skidmore Foundation, splicing it onto a new structure overlooking Saturday Market's relocated quarters and the Willamette River. The combined 85,000-square-foot interior is airy and bright, with wide staircases of salvaged Douglas fir and enough green features to aim for a coveted Platinum LEED rating.

In the old headquarters, which was jammed into six rented buildings, desks rattled as trucks passed by. In the new digs, workers gather in areas resembling living rooms and eat on a second-story terrace overlooking the historic fountain.

Paul Dudley Hart, Mercy Corps senior vice president, marvels at the characters passing his window overlooking the Burnside Bridge, where men in hooded sweatshirts huddle by the Portland Rescue Mission. "I saw this bicyclist with steel horns on his helmet," he said, "chasing a guy running with no shirt on and heavy tattoos."

Lest anyone brand the building opulent in contrast to Mercy Corps' mission, Dudley Hart compares the $19-per-square-foot occupancy cost to equivalent downtown leases of $30. City government subsidized the project to keep Mercy Corps in Portland, leaving the nonprofit -- which has raised almost $10 million for the building -- with a modest $7 million mortgage.

The Jeld-Wen Foundation and the Lemelson Foundation, which occupies a section of the building, gave the largest gifts to Mercy Corps' $20 million capital campaign. The first capital campaign in Mercy Corps' history has netted $13.7 million so far, despite global stock meltdowns.

Mercy Corps, which aims this year for $7 million in net private donations, is about $200,000 behind where Dudley Hart would prefer it to be for the fiscal year that began July 1. He expects annual contributions will catch up.

The new headquarters, built by Walsh Construction Co., came in on time and under budget, said Neal Keny-Guyer, Mercy Corps chief executive. Keny-Guyer works in a modest corner office and claims to have missed out on basement shower-locker allocation due to his frequent travel time.

On the ground floor, Mercy Corps Northwest is opening offices that help low-income small-business owners in Oregon and Washington. A revolving exhibit space features a show called "Design for the Other 90 Percent," featuring inventions to improve the lives of poor people around the world.

"For the first time, we have the facilities to really create the connecting tissue we've always wanted with the community," Dudley Hart said.

As the organization strengthens local ties, its international mission continues to claim the highest visibility. Jeffery, the Indonesian earthquake-response coordinator, activated Skype Tuesday to chat with a field manager working past midnight in hard-hit Padang.

As a loud drilling echoed through the new headquarters, the two discussed distribution of thousands of tarps, mattresses, shovels, hammers and wheelbarrows. They reviewed two $300,000 emergency grants received from government agencies.

Jeffery, 38, sipped on a 16-ounce latte, 4 ounces up from his standard non-emergency dose. Books lining the British expatriate's cubicle betrayed oddities of his work: a Lonely Planet guide to Indonesia, Roger Fisher's negotiation classic, "Getting to Yes," and a North Korean volume, "Pyongyang Review."

Few staff members admit to nostalgia for the old offices, although some miss the Lair Hill Bistro, which has lost business in their absence. Dudley Hart, pouring coffee in the sparkling new cafeteria, said he didn't miss a thing.

"We've even shed our old habits of growing various flora in the fridges," he said.