Here we stand; now what?

The visit to Sweet Home last week by a pair of experts in downtown renewal did what it was supposed to do – in some ways. We got an objective analysis of where our commercial district stands in the eyes of folks who don’t live here.

It wasn’t pretty, but it was realistic.

See, those of us who live here either don’t realize or may have forgotten how our town appears to those who drive in from places where tin or T-111 siding aren’t allowed on downtown buildings.

It wasn’t pleasant. I have to confess I was a little ticked when I left the meeting on Tuesday night in which Pam Silbernagel of Oregon Cascade West Council of Governments and Vicki Dugger of the Oregon Downtown Association let us have their reaction to a day spent in Sweet Home. They toured the town, talked to business people and city officials, and had lunch with a cross-section of the local population.

So, if you’ve read our story starting on page 1, you’ll know that they used terms such as “blighted,” “unhealthy,” “cheap and tacky” to describe what they saw.

In a way, I can’t disagree. When you look at our commercial district, it is not welcoming, for the most part. Sure, we have some businesses that have made an (often successful) attempt to appear cheerful and welcoming, whose personnel are friendly and helpful when you walk in. But there are others that, particularly to someone who isn’t used to Sweet Home, are not welcoming, either in appearance or on a personal level.

Too many buildings are vacant in the downtown. Too many businesses have such irregular hours that it’s sometimes hard to find them open. They have a sign and that’s about it. They occupy choice space along the main corridor but they don’t offer much except a locked door to the local consumer or to a visitor.

One of the things I have to do as the local journalist is try to encapsulate what happened in a two-hour meeting. In a news report, I try to keep my own judgments out of the narrative as much as possible.

But in this column I’ll say that the impression I got from watching and listening to our two visitors is that they were a little frustrated with Sweet Home. Several times they referred to the 2003 downtown renewal study prepared by the ODA, which spells out a lot of what they were telling us on Tuesday.

They referred to the fact that former Economic Development Director Karen Owen, hired by the Sweet Home Economic Development Group in 2001 to help stimulate the local business district, had not been replaced since her departure in the spring of 2006.

I’ve heard through the grapevine that they also expressed concerns about some negative comments they heard during their visit. Negativity probably didn’t do much for them as they determined whom they wanted to work with for the next year.

So they’ve decided they would rather work with our neighbor down the road, Lebanon, with Philomath, Newport and Toledo.

It would have been nice to have their critical eye and expertise at solving downtown problems, but they’ve chosen another path.

When you think about it, it’s not hard to see why they picked four other cities to work with, even though they kept telling us how much potential Sweet Home has. Sweet Home does have potential, but these people are working with grant money and when you have a grant, the organization handing out the dough wants to see results.

When you look at Lebanon and Philomath and Newport (I’m not real familiar with Toledo), they have downtown business sections that are in better shape than Sweet Home’s. The buildings are not empty. They may be ugly, but they aren’t vacant. Dugger and Silbernagel likely met a lot of engaging, motivated people in those cities. They saw that a lot could be done to make those communities fit their model for a healthy downtown. They made their choice, and they didn’t choose a city that needs more than just a cosmetic job.

Now we have to make ours.

We have to decide where to go next, because we’ve got some momentum and it would be foolish to lay off now.

It was encouraging to see a pretty packed room at the Police Station on Tuesday. It was a cold, sleety night and yet they came out. They cared.

I think a lot of people in Sweet Home care. Sure, we may not all agree on what the problems are and we may have different solutions in mind, but we care. And that’s a start.

That’s also what Dugger and Silbernagel apparently couldn’t see. Sweet Home has been through a very rough stretch. I’ve heard it said, by people who don’t live here, that we are the one of the hardest-hit communities by the whole spotted owl catastrophe. When you look at photos of Sweet Home’s main streets from the 1970s and then look at them now, there’s a big difference.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Dugger and Silbernagel were right when they said it’s going to take initiative on the part of ourselves, on the part of business owners and downtown property owners, to get this thing moving. It’s going to take money, but so did the Community Center. So did the Jamboree. Both of those monuments to the community’s can-do spirit happened during the low ebb of the post-Spotted Owl era. The key thing is, they happened.

Silbernagle and Dugger made it very clear that they thought an urban renewal district would make a difference for Sweet Home. Such a district could provide incentives, such as tax relief, to property owners who make positive changes to their land and buildings.

I’ve seen similar arrangements work very well in other towns that were where Sweet Home is now, but the problem is, with the way our police force is funded (which is a little too complicated to go into in- depth here), an urban renewal district would effectively reduce future police funding and we’d have to find the money for our cops somewhere to keep both going.

An urban renewal district isn’t off the table, but it’s not as great a solution for us as it is for others, such as the four cities chosen for this one-year program.

Yes, it’s going to take bucks to get things turned around in Sweet Home. Things are not going to get better until we spend money and start the process, slowly but surely, of brightening up our business district.

Dugger and Silbernagle talked about a “hero” – basically someone who leads by example and, hopefully, by force of character as well. Someone who can get the ball rolling.

I’m not too keen on catchy words, but I get the point. We know what heroes are. People like Jim Riggs are heroes, by Silbernagel and Dugger’s definition. So were the folks who thought up and started the Jamboree.

Now we need someone to lead the way to making decisions about where we want Sweet Home to go. If we’re not going to be a thriving lumber town anytime soon, what should we be? How can we get people to invest in this town? How can we help local businesses be successful? What sorts of standards should be in place for buildings and streets and parking and the other issues that people don’t find attractive about our town? Who’s going to set and enforce those standards?

Silbernagel and Dugger made one thing clear – and they’re very right about this: The leader in any downtown renewal in Sweet Home should not be the city. It should not be city staff. It needs to be the citizens of Sweet Home.

It needs to be you.

I’m relatively new to Sweet Home, closing in on three years now. But when I sat there listening to these visitors imply that we might not be motivated enough to make something happen, I thought to myself, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I was mad.

Yes, it’s been a hard row to hoe for the folks here and a lot of people who should have been at that meeting weren’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t succesfullly take this on.

We don’t need Dugger and Silbernagel. We might need some outside expertise here or there, but what we really need is to just determine what needs to happen and what it will take to get there.

We have one ace in the hole that Silbernagle and Dugger didn’t really mention. The original purpose of the Oregon Jamboree was to improve the economy of Sweet Home.

Sure, the festival has taken on a life of its own in recent years as SHEDG officials have searched for a permanent venue for it. But hopefully that venue will take shape in the next few years and the Jamboree (and other events) will have a home here. Then it will be time for the Jamboree, by that time hopefully flowered into what it should be, to produce the fruit for which it was created.

That would be finances, money to get things turned around in a big way, to make Sweet Home attractive to visitors and to investors, both people who live here and people who are thinking about it.

Let’s be patient but let’s be persistent. Sweet Home can do this.

All by ourselves.