Thank you, Vicki Tarbox, for mourning the demise of the First Wednesday events in Salem, Oregon. Your letter to the editor in today's Statesman Journal asks some great questions.
After sharing it, I'll reveal evidence implicating the culprit who killed First Wednesday: City Manager Linda Norris and her accomplices on the Salem City Council.
Here's Tarbox's letter:
Every year we look forward to First Wednesday in December. All the brightly lit and crowded stores, carolers in Dickensian costumes, food offerings and treats; everything for the holidays!
We went downtown on the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 3, and there was nothing. Zip, zilch, nada, nothing.
What has happened in a year? Where is the Christmas spirit in downtown Salem? Where is First Wednesday?
Other towns, including Corvallis, Eugene and Bend, host a “first” day of the month. When is ours? Has it changed?
Where is the “vibrant downtown” I keep reading about?
How very sad for downtown Salem.
I agree. It is very sad.
Salem's downtown has a lot of untapped potential. A big reason why downtown continues to struggle is the cluelessness of City officials who have undermined promotional efforts in our town's Historic District core.
The first thing to know is this: in 2013 City Manager Linda Norris and her City Council cronies dissolved the Salem Downtown Partnership organization that had been responsible for First Wednesday, using Economic Improvement District (EID) funds supplied by downtown businesses.
I wrote about this travesty in "Should Salem City Manager be known as Exalted Emperor Linda Norris?"
This is amazing. Amazingly disturbing.
The top non-elected city official dissolves a duly organized downtown organization so she can take control of the group's money. Then chooses to keep records of her Imperial Pronouncements secret. I can't believe this would be tolerated even in Tony Soprano's New Jersey, much less in supposedly squeaky-clean Oregon.
Worse, the story behind Norris' takeover of the downtown organization is just as disturbing as the action itself. I revealed this in "City of Salem takes over Salem Downtown Partnership for lousy reasons."
A few days ago I talked with someone in-the-know about how the Salem (Oregon) City Manager, Linda Norris, ended up controlling on her own $215,000 in Economic Improvement District funds paid by downtown businesses.
It was a lengthy conversation. This person asked to talk with me because he/she was so disturbed about how the EID was handled, and liked my blog-reporting on other downtown issues.
I was on the phone with this person for about 90 minutes. I learned a lot about how the City of Salem ended up cancelling the contract Salem Downtown Partnership had to administer the Economic Improvement District (EID) money.
The headline, so to speak, is this:
Norris and other City of Salem staff set up Salem Downtown Partnership to fail. Instead of working cooperatively and collaboratively with this duly-selected organization that represented downtown businesses, the City undermined its efforts in various ways.
Not surprisingly, downtown businesses weren't happy with the City Manager waltzing in, imperiously taking over the duly-appointed downtown organization and the EID funds contributed by those businesses, then doing a horrible job promoting downtown.
in May 2014 the business owners voted the EID out of existence in a show of no confidence for City Manager Norris and her secretive band of hand-picked advisory committee members (astoundingly, Norris served as the one-person "board of directors" for the fake downtown organization she set up after usurping the EID funds).
The Statesman Journal story about this ends with:
Salem City Manager Linda Norris said the city had received written objections from property owners representing nearly 36 percent of the assessment. That gave opponents of the EID sufficient numbers to bring the program to an abrupt end.
Roughly 16 months ago, the city took over administration of the EID after terminating a contract with Salem Downtown Partnership, a private group. The Salem City Manager and a 16-member steering committee have since directed the use of EID.
Some downtown business interests have praised efforts to make the area more inviting to shoppers, especially the Downtown Clean Team.
Critics, however, resented the city's control of EID funds and asserted that downtown promotions, such as First Wednesday, had become ineffective.
Hope this helps answer your questions, Ms. Tarbox. First Wednesday was doing fine until City Manager Norris jumped in and screwed things up.
Annoyingly, the city councilor who represents downtown, Chuck Bennett, not only didn't do anything to stop this; I'm pretty sure he made the motion at a city council meeting that made it possible for spending the EID funds to be overseen by the City Manager rather than a representative group of downtown business owners.
On Wednesdays I have a Tai Chi class from 4:30 to 6:00 pm on Court Street, above the Dairy Lunch diner. I used to walk out of class on the first Wednesday of each month and be met with an extra dose of people on the sidewalks, enjoying a special promotional event.
Now, first Wednesday looks just every other day of the week. Few people are downtown. No sense of excitement or vitality. Yes, there are great restaurants, coffee houses, bars, and other places to visit downtown. That hasn't changed.
First Wednesday has, though. Blame City Manager Linda Norris and Salem city councilors for that.