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The Oregonian

Change agent wants the helped to help utility



You don't talk about Northeast Portland without mentioning Sheila Holden's name.

This quiet Mississippi-born woman is a power-weight of influence with a face that looks like it still believes in Santa Claus. For years, Holden has mixed business with personal passion, cheerleading for businesses, pushing for social services for low-income people and creating economic opportunities for women and minorities.

Now, Holden is fighting to keep the low electricity rates paid by 68,000 Northeast residents from being swept up into a hurricane of bias against bankrupt Enron and its profit-hungry child, Portland General Electric.

Holden is a regional manager for Pacific Power, a division of PacifiCorp. Its parent company is in Scotland, but its national headquarters and concentrated Oregon customer base are in North and Northeast Portland.

Along comes the Oregon Public Power Coalition. It wants to create a public utility district in Multnomah County, the heart of PGE's territory. Best to have local control, is the argument. Best to stop this corporate hog from being gobbled by another power-hungry utility.

Voters will decide Nov. 4 whether to take over the county's electrical system and create a people's utility district, or PUD. However, if PGE's service territory is condemned, so go Pacific Power's lowest electricity rates in the region.

So goes the local presence of a company that is a national leader in harnessing renewable wind power. So goes a model corporate citizen that gives at least $1 million a year to community organizations and regularly loans its executives to lead community projects.

In 1996, for example, Pacific Power created Albina Community Bank. It helped establish Oregon HEAT, which helps pay energy bills of low-income people. And one of its executives is assisting with Gov. Ted Kulongoski's business initiative.

In a fight to keep its customer base, Pacific Power has joined PGE in distributing and financing anti-PUD information. But Holden -- and her long-established community credibility -- may be the secret weapon in this dogfight.

For the last two years, Holden has run the North-Northeast Economic Development Alliance. The group will soon release its first State of the Community report, which monitors all of the area's investments.

Last year, Holden was a chairwoman of the citizens committee for the Interstate Corridor urban renewal area. Her group helped identify projects that later got cut out of the funding loop of the Portland Development Commission.

As president of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods in the mid-'90s, Holden helped push the revitalization of funky-and-fabulous Alberta Street. She also was involved in the Albina Community Plan.

What's more, in 1988, Holden helped create a business incubator called the Cascade Business Center. Pacific Power provided the financing and North Vancouver Avenue building, which now houses the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs, or OAME.

"If it wasn't for Pacific Power paying my salary," Holden says, "I wouldn't have the freedom and time to do that work."

Now, it's payback time. Holden plans to use those contacts she's made helping people to build community angst over the public-utility initiative.

"We see this right now as a grand opportunity," Holden says, "to tell them what's real and what's Memorex."

S. Renee Mitchell, 503-221-8142; rmitch@news.oregonian.com