Editorial: Progress indicates that SHARE is more than talk

We’ve focused quite a bit in the last couple of years on our news coverage of the revitalization process that is under way in downtown Sweet Home €“ because we believe it’s important.

It was pretty clear to our news staff, when the community meetings that initiated this movement occurred two years ago, that we needed to pay serious news attention to the energetic response to the negative assessment of our town by downtown renewal experts Pam Silbernagel and Vicki Dugger in late January of 2008.

We recognized then, as well as now, that there had been a number of moves over the years to turn things around. In fact we’ve just had a couple of examples of those efforts in recent papers.

For instance, in the “From our Files” history review we published March 3, from the March 6, 1985 issue of The New Era we learned that “some 35 people attended the “Sweet Home: Focus on the Future” meeting at the T&M Pizza Parlor this week.”

The purposes of that meeting, according to the story, were to “find out merchants’ problems and ideas and to promote a positive economy.” During a brainstorm session participants came up with suggestions such as “the need for a positive attitude, to smile and ‘be up,’ downtown benches, a theme for the community, a Friday shopping night when all the businesses stay open late, downtown clean-up, window boxes, knowledgeable and helpful employees, street cleaning alternatives, unify the business people, develop goals and promote tourism.”

In our Feb. 24 edition, we reported on a visit by Craig Smith, who has been involved for some 20 years as a representative of Rural Development Initiatives, in providing assistance to Sweet Home efforts to turn itself around. RDI helped local community leaders develop a Community Vision Statement, finalized in 1994, that spelled out where they wanted to be in 2013.

That statement envisioned a healthy local economy with “quality restaurants and motels,” a thriving tourist industry based on the nearby outdoor recreational opportunities, a bustling business district, a vibrant local government and population, and a new Boys and Girls Club facility.

Sweet Home Active Revitalization Effort is the latest, and seemingly very energetic, effort to find economic answers for Sweet Home.

Three times in March and April some of the local folks who have been involved in SHARE (including me) have spent entire mornings with John Morgan, the Keizer-based facilitator who helped the SHARE effort get going two years ago before it had that name, to plan for the next steps toward economic improvement.

The notable thing, to me, about SHARE is that the energy level continues to hold steady. A few people have bowed out for various reasons, but most of those who decided they didn’t agree with Silbernagel and Dugger back in 2008 are still working on making something happen. That’s encouraging and it sounds different to me than how folks have described past efforts to make changes.

I’ve had a few old-timers tell me, “This is the same old thing. We’ve been down this road before.”

Maybe folks have started down this road before, but were they still marching just as fast, with just as much determination, after two years? Were there still as many people marching as when they started?

That, I think, is one of the big differences this time around.

The other big difference is results €“ some very obvious.

All of the efforts of the past have produced results. Chief among them are, of course, the Oregon Jamboree.

In one of our meetings, Morgan cited a book that has become popular, entitled “Radical LEAP.” Its gist is that successful leaders (L)ove what they’re doing, which breeds (E)nergy, which results in (A)udacious disregard for convention and (P)roof (evidence) of accomplishment €“ hence the LEAP acronym.

There’s no question that Sweet Home has a streak of audaciousness. It’s not just many of those involved in SHARE, it’s the folks who founded the Jamboree, who built the Boys and Girls Club, who built a house for Darrill Harper, a disabled man who needed help after a tree fell on his mobile home. They took matters into their own hands in a sweeping manner and made something happen.

Certainly, the SHARE movement’s accomplishments have not been that dramatic €“ so far, but there is plenty of evidence that something is happening. In the last couple of years that includes the SALEabration all-city yard sale, the Warm and Cozy Tour at Christmas, business seminars, mural preservation efforts, new signs and paint jobs as a result of the Commercial Exterior Improvement Project, the hiring of Brian Hoffman as economic development director, the purchase of land that might be used as a site for a downtown hub, promoting Sweet Home with advertising and personal representation in travel shows and magazines, and other, less tangible progress.

The latter includes what has been happening the meetings with John Morgan. Energy usually doesn’t last over the long haul if you don’t have some structure (SHARE) and don’t have goals. Hence, there have been ongoing efforts by SHARE and the Chamber of Commerce to coordinate their efforts, develop better communication among the various players involved in revitalization, develop budgets to use proceeds from the Oregon Jamboree in a wise and productive manner to improve the local community, and more.

As one participant in those meetings put it, “People with different personalities are working together. I think people are learning to disagree and still move forward instead of turning and walking away.”

I think that speaker is correct and that’s a big accomplishment. Some of the pettiness and ego have been put aside. Working together takes patience and the ability to deal with the fact that not everything is going to go exactly the way you want it to. Maybe the end result isn’t exactly the ideal you envisioned, but as this effort progresses, it’s likely going to be an improvement over what was there before.

This process, lest we forget, is aiming to put healthy businesses in the empty storefronts of Sweet Home, businesses that are geared to serve not only local residents’ needs but multifaceted enough to support the visitors that currently are driving right through without stopping. It’s to convert Sweet Home from a logging town on the ropes, subject to every whim and fluctuation in the wood products industry and government forest management policies, into a vigorous town that has other options as well.

Yes, the end result will be a different Sweet Home than what existed five years ago, when I arrived, and certainly what existed back in the city’s heyday, when it was a major player in Oregon’s biggest industry €“ forestry products.

Back then, I’d guess, most local folks probably had less reason to care whether people driving through on Highway 20 stopped. But we care now, at least most of us who are working to get ahead.

There’s very little enthusiasm for turning Sweet Home into a “plastic” tourist-oriented town, as some view Sisters.

But Sweet Home has a lot to offer tourists now and the right mix of businesses and other attractions, particularly offered without the artificial façade you see up the road, would sweeten the package considerably. Events, stores, lodging would bring dollars into the local economy from people who want to enjoy what we have to offer, here in the heart of the outdoors.

Now the question is what’s next. It’s pretty clear that a couple of things are at the top of the agenda for those interested. One goal that seems close to realization is the effort to clarify roles for SHARE and the chamber so people aren’t stepping on each other’s toes and wasting energy and hurting feelings with unnecessary duplication of effort.

That means continuing learning to communicate better and figuring out who would best accomplish goals such as strengthening local businesses, attracting new ones, promoting the community, organizing events, etc. It will probably require some restructuring and rethinking in both organizations over the next few months to make all that happen, but I am confident it will because the success of the process of revitalizing our local economy depends on it.

The other big question waiting to be answered is where, exactly, do we want to go with this? What kind of a town do we want to be? The answer will influence much of the planning that is going to have to happen as SHARE moves forward. SHARE and the chamber are working on establishing goals to be met in the near future €“ some very visible and some more behind-the-scenes.

Some of those include sprucing up the downtown with new (and tasteful) paint and other improvements, planning for how empty storefronts can and should be filled in a way that will be of the greatest benefit to the community, and planning events that will give the local business community a boost.

If you want to be part of the process, as these decisions are being made, now’s the time to get involved €“ even peripherally.

Volunteer to help out with an event or, if you have more free time, get involved in one of the planning committees. SHARE and the chamber both have committees that plan events, take care of the financial end of things for improvement efforts, market the community in various ways, plan for the physical and procedural changes that may be necessary to attract new business and new visitors to town, and generally coordinate all the operations just described.

It’s going to take time. It’s going to continue to take coordination and cooperation. People have to be patient with the process and with each other. Right now the focus is on the downtown, but eventually it’s likely that attention and aid will shift to projects outside the core area between 9th and 18th avenues.

In the end, the way things are going, Sweet Home may have a slightly different look than it did back in the day, but we hope a lot of the prosperity the local population once enjoyed will be back.