Seminar shows way to revitalization

How do you turn a downtown around?

That was the topic at a revitalization workshop held in Albany last Friday, sponsored by a variety of government agencies and the nonprofit Oregon Downtown Development Association, that I attended along with nearly 100 other people from as far away as Eagle Point to the south and The Dalles to the north.

I mentioned this event a couple of weeks ago in these pages and I decided that since my wife and a bunch of other local people had signed up to go, I’d better too. I figured I could write a little report for all of you readers who are interested in downtown revitalization and could also just learn some things, since I’m far from being expert in these matters – though I’ve seen successful revitalization take place in other cities I’ve lived in and covered as a journalist.

Just so you know, the 13-member Sweet Home contingent was by far the largest of the approximately 30 communities that sent representatives. Albany, which hosted it, had 10 listed on the attendance roll and several of those were employees of the various agencies that put it on, who simply live in Albany.

What that tells me is that there’s definitely interest in the topic here in our city. Those who attended included City Council members Bob McIntire and Scott McKee Jr., city staffers Carol Lewis (the city’s development director), Connie DeBusschere, Edene Flierl, Joe Graybill, Molly Laycock and Wendy Younger, and interested citizens Linda Garcia, Beth Lambert, Nancy Patton, Miriam Swanson (my wife) and yours truly. (City Manager Craig Martin had hoped to come but had an unavoidable family obligation.)

It’s hard to summarize everything you learn in a six-hour series of sessions, but here’s the quick-and-dirty version. Warning: I’ve tried to weed out some of the “seminar-speak” buzz words, but there’ll be some I couldn’t edit out.

We learned, first of all, that the main obstacles to downtown revitalization in most communities tend to come from existing attitudes – negative, pessimistic or unrealistic attitudes that result in fear of change, lack of tenacity, confrontational working relationships and an entitlement mentality. Often there is a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality and just a basic lack of organization and the ability to creatively solve problems.

Lack of focus is another problem – you have to know where you want to go and be able to prioritize what’s important.

Another common problem is an absence of positive, forward-thinking leaders.

We learned that, typically, the 20 percent of the people opposing something are 100 percent louder than the middle-of-the-road 60 percent. If you want revitalization, you have to be able to stand up for what needs to happen and maybe take a little political heat.

One other problem we heard about was lack of skills – to sell ideas to residents or to get a project off high center.

Still with me? Having slogged through the negatives, we then learned that making revitalization happen requires different kinds of people, who could be grouped into the following three categories:

– Doers, the people who like overcoming challenges and who can make sure things get done;

– Resource connectors, people who are willing to use their connections to make things happen through financing, technical expertise, equipment, etc.

– Power people, the ones who make change happen. They either have power themselves or they can influence those who do.

The trick is to put together a mix of those people, who are all focused on the same goal, to make something happen.

Without becoming more laborious, we also heard about funding opportunities for various types of projects. There’s a lot of money out there, from government sources as well as nonprofits dedicated to improving communities.

The bottom line is that if our community wants to cash in on the help that is available, we have to have a clearly defined plan that fits what grantors are interested in and we need to be able to show that we’re willing to step up and put our own money on the line to make something happen.

A lot of the grants out there require matching funds, which makes a lot of sense since if Sweet Home – or any other community – wants help, the helpers want to ensure that the money’s going to something that actually will come to fruition.

We also heard from a developer who’s done a lot of work in the revitalization of downtown Albany, and the day ended with a walking tour of some of the second-story redevelopment going on in the downtown area – creative ways that developers are using the space in those old buildings.

Coming away from this workshop, it’s pretty clear that if anything is going to change in Sweet Home, people have to get on the same page and come up with a viable plan. We need leaders to step up and make this happen, who can help neutralize some of those problems I mentioned earlier.

It would be best if that leadership came largely from the community rather than the city, though City Manager Martin should get most of the credit for getting the local folks to the workshop. These days a lot of redevelopment or revitalization is government-driven, but city government in Sweet Home has enough problems to deal with without getting heavily into trying to build the downtown into a healthy center of commerce and activity.

At the same time, city government needs to do as much as possible to make it possible for new businesses to get established.

Property owners in the downtown need to step up and make their buildings (a) habitable and (b) attractive. We’re working on plans to try to improve our own building and its appearance from the street. Other local property owners, such as Steve Hanscam, our neighbor, have already applied some fresh paint and, in Steve’s case, striped the parking lot he owns.

This is just a start. If we want to get over the hump, if we want to increase local commerce from both residents and tourists so we can at least compete with places like downtown Albany, Sisters and some of the beach towns, community leaders have to get on the same page, whether it be through the Sweet Home Economic Development Group (whose purpose for existence is supposed to be exactly this) or some other coalition. They need to come up with a focused, realistic plan that achieves goals. There should be public meetings to allow citizens to have their say, to brainstorm and to plan. People who have an interest in seeing improvements need to step up and participate. Those who have the expertise necessary to help develop funding need to step up and participate. Those who have access to resources, or who just like to see things accomplished, need to step up.

This isn’t new territory here in Sweet Home. This is how the Community Center got built. It’s how the Jamboree developed into what it is today. People here know how to do this stuff.

So the question that has to be answered now is “What next?” Do we want to see change that results in a strengthened downtown business district, more reason for both residents and tourists to spend money in town? Or are we satisfied with things the way they are – residents who shop out of town more than in town and tourists who don’t have any reason to do much shopping here?

Sweet Home needs to address those questions and, unless we want to get beat to the punch by 30 other communities, we need to answer them soon.