Portlanders, you may snicker about the architectural quality of Salem’s brand new conference center, but the community open house today was well attended by wide-eyed capital city residents—me among them. Downtown Salem has seen quite a few store closings the past few years, so the opening of a combined Phoenix Hotel and Salem Conference Center is a welcome step toward rejuvenation of the city core.
I began my tour by contemplating the front of the center from across the street. Laurel thinks it looks like a piece of particle board supported by tinker toys. I agree. We read in the newspaper that the supports are intended to remind passers-by of fir trees. Even when I squinted, I couldn’t see the resemblance.
The main ground floor meeting area is the Santiam River Room, I think. I’m not absolutely sure what it’s called because signs weren’t obvious and my tour was self-guided. I was hungry and figured that I’d be able to locate open house snacks faster on my own. Sadly, all I could find was some ice water. Maybe I should taken a guided tour after all, if the tour guided you to snacks. I’m pretty sure the musical group is from the Salem Chamber Orchestra. Three people are listening to them. That’s Salem.
I made my way upstairs to what I surmised is the Willamette River Room. The Salem Senate-aires singers were about to perform. As my eyes absorbed the décor, I kept thinking that Sly and the Family Stone should be on stage. The lights and carpet just seemed so late ‘60s/early ‘70s. I’ve read in the paper that “you’ll either love or hate the main upstairs room.” Yes. It begs for an extreme opinion. Fearful that I’d start having flashbacks stimulated by the glow lights, I exited the room before a firm love/hate decision of my own formed (I lean toward hate).
From the second floor lobby you have a concrete-building-filled view of the Salem riverfront. It's a crime against good urban design to have the butt-ugly Boise Cascade buildings clogging up so much of downtown Salem’s access to the Willamette River. Attempts to convert the area to more aesthetic uses (anything else would be more aesthetic, believe me) have failed so far.
So that’s my cyber-tour of the Salem Conference Center. The place wouldn’t be a big deal if it were in Portland, but it definitely is an important addition to Salem’s impoverished civic landscape.
The big controversy surrounding the opening of the center is whether its dearth of dedicated parking will force attendees to use the free downtown parking spaces, tying up spots that otherwise would go to people patronizing merchants.
Yes, Portlanders, you can park free for as long as you like in downtown Salem. Plus, most of the time you can park in the same block as the business you’re going to. At least there are a few things Salem can feel superior to Portland about.