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City councilors ponder options for spurring local economic development

Sweet Home has nearly half a million dollars to spend on economic development projects, so City Council members are weighing several ideas regarding how to do that.

Options include bringing in city-wide broadband internet, a program to improve the appearance of commercial buildings, extending and widening 24th Avenue, and developing the Knife River Quarry into a regional attraction or park.

Though the $456,512 available sounds like a lot, it may not go far on projects like infrastructure improvements, which have an anticipated cost of nearly $7 million.

In a work session on the topic Tuesday, July 14, Councilor Lisa Gourley suggested raised berms in downtown to give the city a nicer look.

“How easy would that be to tweak that a little bit and change the focus of how it feels to come into town,” she said.

Council members spent significant time discussing the Commercial Exterior Improvement Program, which helps property owners improve the appearance of their businesses with a matching grant program.

CEIP grants are set up for a variety of different projects by local businesses, but they don’t include design standards, said Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen. “Do we want a specific look or feel? That’s not really present. It’s very much up to the individual property owner of what they want it to look like,” he said.

Larsen suggested including design standards in the grant application, either as a requirement or by giving higher matching percentages for businesses that comply.

City Manager Raymond Towry said the city could implement code requirements so buildings would make visual changes as they update and make improvements.

“It might not be popular,” Towry said, but “I think a lot of people in the community would support it.”

The funds could also be used to develop clear design standards by hiring an architect, Larsen said. He mentioned that the city of Sandy used urban renewal funds to hire an architect to design façades for every building in town, then offered to pay for each façade for each new building.

“You can choose a façade that’s not burdensome but that gives a consistent feel and a comfortable feel for Sweet Home,” Larsen said.

Councilors appeared interested in beautifying downtown, either with the CEIP or with the downtown streetscape and parking plan. That plan may cost $25,000 to $35,000 to develop, while CEIP grants currently cost $25,000 per year.

“When you come to Sweet Home, the first thing you see is Main Street,” Gourley said. “That should be our No. 1 priority.”

Mayor Greg Mahler said, “I’d like to get every downtown business leader together for a meeting” to discuss design standards.

Larsen replied that a meeting with stakeholders is a good plan, but coming up with a few design options or visual aids to start would facilitate discussion.

Gourley expressed interest in broadband internet, with Councilor Susan Coleman noting the importance of good internet “especially if we want to attract remote workers.”

Councilor Dave Trask mentioned similar broadband projects in Scio and Halsey, but Larsen noted difficulty in finding financial backing for such a project, as federal grants are typically reserved for areas with worse internet access than Sweet Home currently has.

One option is to require new developments to include conduits so a future broadband project can be implemented more easily, he suggested.

Councilors also spent significant time discussing possible improvements to the 24th Avenue Economic Development Corridor and the Knife River property, both of which are relevant for the future Jamboree area.

“It’s a potential for a nice outdoor area and park-like setting, but it will require some improvements,” Larsen said.

Getting there will require adding more infrastructure, widening 24th Avenue, a railroad crossing, developing parks and trails around ponds, and creating a master plan for the former Weyerhaeuser Mill site. Those improvements all together may cost over $7.8 million.

For the park itself, the city is looking at turning the Knife River Quarry property into a “regional attraction” by developing an amphitheater, sports fields, campsites, trails, and utility infrastructure. Estimated costs for the park are at $8 million.

Larsen also brought up marketing as an option for economic development, especially to set up market to industrial clients for “certain sites like the mill property.”

Mahler brought up the library as a site that could use some funds, and Gourley said it may be a good idea to partner with the county for parks development.

Other proposed projects include business incentives and a shared workplace hub to draw remote workers. The council didn’t set priorities for these options at the work session, but will likely meet again to set priorities in a future work session.