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United Bicycle Institute is leaving Portland

UBI is packing up.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

“The cost of doing business in Portland at our current location has become unsustainable.”
— Ron Sutphin, UBI

Citing an “unsustainable” cost of doing business, the owner of United Bicycle Institute says the company is moving out of its Portland location. They plan to consolidate back to their main Ashland campus in Southern Oregon where they’ve been doing business for 38 years.

10 years ago, UBI, a school that offers two-week bicycle mechanic and framebuilder certifications, expanded from Ashland and opened up shop in a new development on North Williams Avenue. The move came amid unprecedented growth in the Portland framebuilding scene. In 2009 the Oregon Handmade Bicycle Show was hitting its stride as 40 framebuilders and thousands of people attended from all over the country (that show no longer happens), bike makers were subject of local ad campaigns, new builders seemed to pop up every month, and Portlanders were leading a national renaissance in handmade bikes.

UBI’s owner and president Ron Sutphin at the Oregon Handmade Bicycle Show in 2009.

UBI’s presence in Portland was a natural extension of that framebuilding craze and a symbol of the strength of the local cycling industry in general. In 2013 UBI hosted a roundtable on vocational training that was led by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker.

Thousands of the UBI graduates have learned how to run a repair shop, overhaul suspension forks, true wheels, and weld bicycle tubes. The last class in Portland was taught on Friday.

I reached out to UBI Founder and President Ron Sutphin to learn more.

(Click images for captions.)

“This has been a tough decision for us but ultimately the cost of doing business in Portland at our current location has become unsustainable,” Sutphin shared via email. Turns out UBI’s lease is up and Sutphin has decided the neighborhood has become too expensive for his business model.

From a seat in the UBI classroom you can see new, multi-level apartment buildings sprouting up out of every window. When UBI moved in in 2009, the neighborhood looked dramatically different. It’s somewhat ironic that UBI was part of a wave of change on Williams that made existing residents and business owners uncomfortable and priced many of them out. Now UBI is a victim of the same circumstance.

Sutphin says, “I am amazed, surprised, and bummed at the rapid changes in the neighborhood.”

He also points to larger trends in retail bike shops that are going through tough times. “This has made it difficult for many shops to offer a competitive wage for mechanics,” Sutphin says, “and consequently there are fewer people seeking fewer beginning tech jobs.”

When UBI first moved in, the allure for foreign students to attend classes at the epicenter of bike culture in America was strong. They represented 10 percent of UBI’s business. Sutphin says that number is down to around 2 percent for the past several years.

When I swung by the location earlier this week, employees Steve Glass and Jeff Menown (both of whom moved to Portland from the Ashland location in 2009) where getting ready to box up all the shop tools. “There’s a lot of memories in this room,” remarked Glass.

(In related news, UBI’s next door neighbor, Queen Bee Creations, who we profiled in 2008 for their bike panniers, has also decided to not renew their lease and will close at the end of this year.)

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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