City staffers present plans for downtown

Sean C. Morgan

City staff last week outlined a multi-pronged approach to dealing with issues in the downtown area to make Sweet Home a more desirable place for people to live and businesses to locate.

Staff made the presentation to the City Council during its regular meeting on Oct. 22.

“To be quite honest, I think I’ve done a very poor job as we’ve been presenting information to you of tying what we are doing into your goals,” City Manager Ray Towry told the council. “That’s one thing we would like to do today with some of the things that we have going on.

“We’ve certainly recognized, and it’s been a hot topic, that we have issues downtown. What I haven’t done a good job of is painting the picture of all the work that we’re trying to put in to help alleviate some of those issues. Tonight, we’d like to do that.”

Police Chief Jeff Lynn and Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen worked with Towry to develop a presentation.

“We’ve talked a bit about livability, and one thing that we need to kind of get the big picture is to talk about the link between livability and economic development,” Larsen said. “They’re really two sides of the same coin. Livable cities are cities that are attractive to both residents and to businesses. The reason that businesses locate in those places are because they have good access to customers and workforce and everything that they need to make their business successful.

“In the vision that you set for the city, we have some aspirations, to make Sweet Home a community that people find desirable to live in, to have an effective and efficient local government and create an economically strong environment, in which businesses prosper.”

“We must ask ourselves a question: Is downtown desirable to live in or to locate a business? Do ordinances and policies allow an efficient and effective government? And do our current ordinances and policies create an economically strong environment? With respect to the downtown, I would say that we’re probably not meeting the goal there, and the question is what can we do to meet that goal.”

Larsen said the city needs to address infrastructure. It needs to make sure master plans are updated and that streetscape and parking plans provide a pleasant environment downtown. Land use and transportation planning are important to help developers and businesses get started and ensure access.

Workforce development is important, and the city is working with the school district and Linn-Benton Community College to ensure training programs are available.

The city also needs to support entrepreneurship and small business development, which it is trying to do through the Sweet Home Innovation Hub, which would provide a facility where people can locate their businesses and have access to the resources they need.

“You can’t forget the people that you’ve already got in town, so business retention and expansion is a big part of economic development,” Larsen said. “We need to have relationships with these businesses, identify any unmet needs. We want to provide whatever help we can before a business leaves or has to close up shop, identify any complementary businesses that might help them out.

“Livability is critical to this because it affects the customers, the residents and visitors and the workforce these businesses need. Housing and livability are an important part of it.

“We can’t just rely on the people that we have right here now. We have to be able to attract those employees that they need that may not be here now, perhaps people with more advanced degrees than we have the training for in town right now. Having a more livable city and having good quality housing in town is critical to getting those people to come and support those businesses.”

Business recruitment is another big part of the city’s work, Larsen said, adding, “again livability in Sweet Home is critical to this.

“It’s not just what it actually is. It’s what the perception is. When we’re trying to recruit businesses from out of town, if they have a bad impression of Sweet Home, that’s going to color the whole deal, and it’s going to provide an extra hurdle for us to try to get over.

“The downtown is a big picture window of Sweet Home. it’s the first impression that people have. It definitely needs to be addressed. (Downtown revitalization) kind of gets right to the heart of the matter. We’re talking about downtown. Currently, there’s not really a vision for downtown. The status quo doesn’t really bring in additional businesses or customers.”

The city is addressing that with a grant program that helps business owners improve the exteriors of their properties, Larsen said. “We also need to step up cleanup and code enforcement in the downtown area to make sure that we’re really putting the best face on the city that we can.

“We need to fight negative perceptions that exist. We need to deter unwanted behavior and encourage property owners to clean up their properties. Marketing events and bringing in the good helps, but you need to block the bad at the same time.

“There’s the little matter of the broken window theory. The idea is that if you have a building that has a broken window and you don’t address that broken window, in a pretty short amount of time, you’re going to have an additional broken window. If that’s not addressed, sooner or later, you’re going to have some graffiti on the bottom floor because these unwanted eyesores, they tend to attract more. If you don’t address bad behavior, it just inspires people to engage in bad behavior. We need to have a response when there are things that are detrimental to our city.

“We really need to attack the behavior. What is the behavior that’s happening in the downtown that is deterring people. There may be shouting, littering, defecation, issues with unattended dogs or dogs that are not under control, thefts, alcohol, drugs. These are all things that keep people from visiting local businesses, and they’re all things that are very apparent to anyone who’s driving through on Highway 20.”

Lynn said the Police Department is “tasked” with “helping to deal with and control and fix” people’s behavior in the downtown. To help do that, the Police Department is looking at a new community court program, he said.

“It’s almost like a problem-solving court because many of these individuals engaged in this type of behavior in the downtown area, a typical standard courtroom may not be the best place for them,” Lynn said.

“They may be dealing with other underlying issues that the criminal system just isn’t really equipped for. By creating a community court, we’re bringing in resources.

“Those resources would be mental health, they would be other social services, addiction services, parole and probation, a whole litany of resources that when somebody’s in front of the judge, the judge and those resources can problem solve to try to find a fix, a resolution for that problem, for that behavior.”

It’s something that’s worked in other communities, Lynn said, adding that Municipal Court Judge Larry Blake has expressed interest.

“We’re just trying to look outside of our normal box to see how we can resolve some of these behaviors,” he said.

“There’s other sanctions that go along with that as well. At some point, a court system needs some teeth behind it. There’s got to be some jail space behind that. At some point, the judge needs some compliance with whatever that issue may be, and right now we have little to no jail bed space for our misdemeanor suspects should they be convicted of something. We need to get some jail space. At some point, people need to go to jail if that’s appropriate.”

Other sanctions may be appropriate, Lynn said. City staff members are looking at options such as work crew.

“We’re sifting through those to see what is doable and not doable.”

In policing, a more effective approach is research-based problem policing, in which the police and others come together to address an issue, he said.

“It’s making proactive contacts. It’s finding solutions for whatever that problem is.

“Let’s be honest, a lot of the solutions, the Police Department can’t provide those solutions, but we can be a conduit to help get those solutions in the area. That’s what we’re talking about, embracing the collaborative approach with other resources in our area to help fix some of the issues whatever they may be in the downtown area or anywhere in the rest of the town.”

Among the ideas, the Police Department is looking at a business property watch program, in which businesses would give police permission to make contact with individuals on their property after business hours and force them to move on or even trespass them, Lynn said.

“These types of programs will come before you in the near future as we look at them more deeply and we look at which ones we want to grab onto.”

With homelessness and the issues surrounding it, Lynn said, it’s about tackling it one homeless person at a time because the causes are varied – poverty, addiction or a veteran with PTSD, for example.

It’s difficult to handle without addressing the underlying cause, he said, noting that many individuals have already been offered resources but declined them.

“Those individuals have to want to help themselves and have to want to engage in those services; but if there’s a time that they’re choosing not engage in those services, I think there also has to be some consequences for the continued behavior,” Lynn said.

The city has been looking at other communities, such as Gresham, to draw inspiration, Lynn said.

Larson said city staff wants to increase community services in the area and have programming – parks and recreation activities or downtown events that the chamber puts on school district activities, “things that are going to increase the good presence in the downtown area,” Larsen said.

The city can make improvements through lighting, cameras, building design standards and an inviting street design, he said. The city needs to look at what incentive property owners have to keep their buildings vacant as well.

If nothing else, the vacant buildings should have artwork on display, he said.

The city needs a business registration program of some kind, which is common in other communities, Larsen said. The city doesn’t necessarily have good information about businesses, including contact information.

Ordinances that can help include bans on public urination, a downtown exclusion zone, bans on smoking in the downtown, design requirements, dog licensing and vaccination requirements and sit-stand-lie laws, Larsen said. The latter prohibit individuals from lying on the sidewalk during business hours, when other people are coming or going.

Evidence from Sankey Park supports these ideas, Larsen said. ‘It was a park that was viewed as risky.”

Following a holistic effort to improve the park, police response statistics are down more than 50 percent, Larsen noted.

“A single ordinance isn’t going to fix anything in and of itself,” Larsen said. The city will need to find solutions and put the Sweet Home stamp on them, but “there’s not going to be a silver bullet.”

Staff members are looking for council feedback, Towry said, but he intends to bring additional ordinances before the council quickly for consideration as part of “the big picture” outlined by Larsen and Lynn.

“I’ve been wanting to see something like this for a long time,” said Councilor Diane Gerson.

Mayor Greg Mahler encouraged councilors to bring their ideas to Towry.

Present at the meeting were councilors Cortney Nash, Mahler, Gerson and Dave Trask. Absent were Susan Coleman, Lisa Gourley and James Goble.