Leaders say livability report provides good chance for SH to assess itself, chart course

Scott Swanson

Local leaders say the Livability Assessment and Recommendations for Sweet Home, released Nov. 21, is an opportunity that will enable local citizens to take an active part in determining what the future of Sweet Home should be and how to make it happen.

Sweet Home is one of four communities around the nation chosen to participate in the study, which is provided free to the recipients. All are “gateway communities” located on the outskirts of a national forest.

The 177-page report, prepared by a team of staffers from the Conservation Fund and the Federal Highway Administration, offers an assessment of Sweet Home’s livability – defined as “tying the quality and location of transportation facilities to broader opportunities such as access to good jobs, affordable housing, quality schools and safe streets.”

The assessment can be viewed or downloaded in PDF form on the Sweet Home city website, http://www.sweet-home.or.us.

It offers numerous, specific recommendations based on six principles that address the need for adequate transportation, housing and economic health while addressing the need to sustain the community’s “unique character.” The principles also focus on coordinating the relationship between a gateway community and the forest it borders, and coordinating policies and leveraging investments in a manner that values and promotes the assets that exist within the community and its bordering forest.

The report contains many examples of how other communities have addressed situations or challenges similar to Sweet Home’s and offers a wide variety of suggestions and background information that local residents can take advantage of and consider in creating action plans to address the future.

It also includes nearly 40 pages of lists of funding and information sources, case studies and other reference information to support the community as it follows through with the recommendations in the assessment.

“The report is very comprehensive, and I think it provides a good template for opportunities for the community to pursue in the future in those various categories,” said Sweet Home City Manager Craig Martin, one of the design team that coordinated the assessment team’s visit Dec. 15-19 of last year and provided follow-up input for the report. “To me it’s a huge opportunity for the community to make some pretty significant gains in some areas we’ve been struggling with for many years, certainly since the downturn of the timber economy in our community.”

One of the reasons why Sweet Home was selected for the livability assessment and a theme the writers of the report continually return to is the community’s efforts to collaborate with county, state and federal agencies and nonprofits in a variety of projects already under way.

“We have been noted for reaching outside our community and for our regional collaborative efforts,” said Jo Ann McQueary, one of the primary organizers of the assessment team’s visit and a leading figure in efforts to improve Sweet Home’s economy. “There are some things that are converging really nicely.

“It was an absolute honor to work on this project with these people.”

The report notes that Sweet Home has leveraged millions of dollars in resources to improve the community, including grant funding from the FHWA’s Federal Lands Access Program and EPA’s Brownfield Assessment Program.

It cites a variety of examples of local cooperation, including the Sweet Home All-Lands Collaborative, established to jointly manage stretches of public and private forestland east of Sweet Home, as a “prime example of city/public land partnership that is striving for natural resource protection and economic resiliency.” SHALC has assumed leadership of the Community Forest project.

The report also notes the longtime cooperation of Linn County Parks and Recreation Department with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service in managing parks facilities throughout east Linn County.

Local residents will have a chance to discuss the assessment with the team in a two-day forum on the evening of March 3 and all day on March 4.

“I would hope that people will take an opportunity to review the document, at least the executive summary, and more importantly, make a point of attending the community workshops that will be held in March,” Martin said. “Even if they say they don’t necessarily support it. We certainly need community involvement to make these happen or to move in the direction the community supports.”

McQueary echoed that.

“They should respond in accordance with their interests and values,” McQueary said. “It’s an opportunity that has been gifted to our community to do this assessment and to participate in the follow-up.”

Although the assessment and specific recommendations far exceed what can be described in a single news article, here are some of the recommendations included in the document:

Principle 1: More transportation choices should be provided for residents, workers and visitors in the community.

The team recommends that transportation projects be made a high priority.

“Priorities should focus on the big picture — Those projects that improve access for the greatest number are environmentally sustainable and will positively impact economic growth,” the team says.

Noting that transportation affects housing affordability, economic development, and access to public services, in addition to just providing means of moving people from one place to another, the writers encourage transportation projects that involve a wide range of people in both planning and impact, noting that these kinds of projects are the ones that tend to attract federal funding.

The report recommends creating a communication plan to coordinate “the many trail planning, development and improvement projects occurring in the Sweet Home area” and “engage the public in the Community Forest Trail, which it describes as “an ambitious endeavor that will have great benefits for the area in terms of livability.”

One challenge the assessment team foresees is raising local match funds for transportation project grants, and it recommends that the city identify common interests with other government entities that will help it raise such revenue.

It also recommends that transportation planning include bicycle usage and that the city adopt a Complete Streets policy that addresses the mobility needs of seniors, families and disabled populations to identify barriers and areas for improvement for walkers, bikers, wheelchairs, transit and personal vehicles.

It also emphasizes pedestrian safety needs, including a consistent 25 mph speed limit that extends past the downtown area, prioritizing crosswalk safety and increasing availability and awareness of public transit opportunities.

Principle 2: Promote equitable, affordable housing and lodging choices that meet the needs of residents, workers and visitors. The report goes into some detail in describing the housing challenges that face Sweet Home, including the fact that 65 percent of Sweet Home students qualify for free or reduced lunches and 10 to 20 percent lack “a permanent, safe home.”

The assessment devotes 20 pages to the topic of housing and lodging, recommending that the community inventory what’s available, support programs aimed at educating and assisting those who need housing, and find ways to inform and communicate with those who have housing needs.

It suggests that the city consider the feasibility of creating a youth shelter and service center for youngsters who are homeless or lack secure housing. It urges the city to work with other agencies and organizations that serve at-risk youths to “leverage” resources.

The team also recommends that the city make rehabilitation of housing a priority, work with organizations that are active in that area and consider incentives for property owners to improve existing housing.

Assessment team members also said Sweet Home lacks lodging and recommend that a community workshop be held to address alternative housing trends, that an inventory be conducted of existing unique and/or historic buildings that could be converted into lodging and create a “development toolbox” of “local and state incentives, financial and technical assistance and community attributes for developing new lodging in Sweet Home.”

Principle 3: Enhancing economic competitiveness by valuing the public lands and natural, cultural, recreational and environmental assets associated with the gateway community.

The team notes some of the economic pluses and minuses Sweet Home has experienced in recent years, such as the fact that the Weyerhaeuser mill in Foster is the only one operating of what used to be nine in the community – or that the Sweet Home Ranger District used to employ more than 100 full-time employees and now has 30 permanent staff members.

It also points out that Linn County has received a $350,000 grant from the EPA for a brownfield environmental assessment of the former Willamette Industries mill site, portions of which are being cleaned up for redevelopment into a park, concert venue and possibly a new trailhead for the Sweet Home Community Forest Trail.

Emphasizing that economic competitiveness is a “main tenet of livability” and that investments in livability often pay off in improved local economies, the assessment team recommends that Sweet Home create a strategic master plan for economic development.

Noting that the Sweet Home Active Revitalization Effort (SHARE) developed a strategic action plan in 2009 that is updated annually, the writers state that the SHARE’s parent group, the Sweet Home Economic Development Group’s (SHEDG) role in economic development is unclear outside of its involvement in the Oregon Jamboree.

“The time is ripe for the community to develop a formal strategic economic development plan and to clarify roles and responsibilities,” the report states.

Other recommendations include defining economic leadership roles and responsibilities within the community and considering outdoor recreation as an economic driver – developing a “sustainable” tourism product that includes figuring out how to portray the town to visitors and take advantage of the potential for economic growth from tourism.

“The community lacks a comprehensive or cohesive approach to maintaining, marketing and providing access to its most valued amenities,” the report’s authors state. They recommend that local residents capitalize on their climate and location, which “provide Sweet Home with many opportunities to set itself apart from other destinations. These events and others should be priorities for marketing and product development.”

The report also recommends development of industries employing secondary processing and manufacturing of wood products – beyond the sawmill, wildcrafting of forest plants, and exploration of the potential of biochar, a fine-grained charcoal made by heating biomass (wood, manure, crop residues, solid waste, etc.) in a specially designed furnace that captures emissions, gases, and oils for reuse as energy.

The writers offer a wide range of recommendations for attracting and incubating new businesses, marketing the community, using the Web to promote the community, attracting investors and much more.

Principle 4: Support existing gateway communities and sustain their unique character.

The report observes Sweet Home’s potential and its positives – how the community’s location features “the iconic beauty of tall fir trees and rivers and streams,” how it has worked to improve sidewalks and the appearance of the downtown, and how various organizations have engaged in beautification projects in town.

The writers state that “continued investment in the existing community is important,” particularly as it as it encourages variety in housing, transportation, employment and recreation to meet livability goals.

Recommendations include creation of a revitalization plan that brings together initiatives created by SHEDG, SHARE and others – a “comprehensive strategy that stems from a vision of how the community should in the future” together with a plan to make that vision a reality.

The report also recommends working with other local communities that have had successful revitalization programs, inventorying all commercial and industrial buildings in the city and establishing incentive programs to encourage revitalization by property owners.

They suggest engaging the community in downtown revitalization through various strategies such as making Main Street a destination for community events such as art walks or displays, street festivals, farmers markets, etc.

Principle 5: Coordinate policies and leverage investments within the community and between the gateway community and public lands.

The writers of the assessment say Sweet Home is well-positioned to take advantage of opportunities for funding and other support, and to leverage the partnerships it has already begun establishing toward that end.

“Communities that demonstrate vision, a sense of purpose in action and strong diverse partnerships are more likely to receive public and private funding to take on new projects,” they say.

“In a competitive market, corporations, foundations and even government agencies want to invest in ideas and initiatives with the possibility of strong returns. Through demonstrated partnerships with its nearby federal land managers, participation in the efforts of SHALC (Sweet Home All Lands Collaborative), the technical assistance of RTCA (Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program) and the FHWA Federal Lands Livability Initiative and the significant action to date towards building economic development and improving quality of life, Sweet Home has demonstrated its commitment to livability and local economic success.”

The report lists various collaborative efforts and programs the city has engaged in with other agencies to improve the community, and recommends that it “use the momentum generated from these initiatives to leverage the investments and attract new partners.”

It recommends a list of potential revenue sources and programs the community may be able to tap into to develop funding for projects that will improve livability. It stresses the importance of engaging “key players” in the legislature and in Congress “in discussions regarding public safety, economic development, homelessness, and education—the most pressing priorities for improving livability in Sweet Home” and placing itself on the “radar of influential leaders.”

It also emphasizes the importance of aligning the community’s goals with those of the county and surrounding public land managers, and of looking for support on the regional level beyond the county borders, including area colleges and universities.

Principle 6: Value communities, neighborhoods and landscapes and the area’s natural, cultural heritage and recreational assets that foster social, economic and public health.

The writers of the report emphasize the importance of engaging the younger generations in planning for the future and revitalization efforts and cultivating their “stewardship and pride” in the community and its natural resources.

Their report encourages mentoring, job shadowing, public service and rewards programs for local youth. It recommends similar efforts to provide opportunities for veterans specifically and volunteers in general.

A somewhat different set of recommendations include developing programs to support community awareness of healthy living and looking for ways to attract medical professionals to work in the community and educating local residents about medical career opportunities.

Martin said the report advocates some things that Sweet Home is already working on, particularly in the area of tourism and recreation, not necessarily as an end-all, but as another economic driver for the community.

Martin said local team members will be “shopping the report around” to local service clubs and organizations interested in Sweet Home’s future.

“Hopefully, that will lead up to a huge community workshop in March,” he said. “We want to make sure there is a deep, broad awareness of this report throughout the community.”

He said absolute buy-in is not necessarily the goal.

“There’s always an opportunity for support or hesitation or nonsupport in those areas,” Martin said. “The biggest thing will be getting feedback from the community. When the assessment team returns, hopefully we can have a fairly robust conversation about what to do and which areas to pursue.

“There are a lot of things that may be desirable to pursue right away. Others, people might want to save for dessert or leave in the chafing dish.”