What needs to be done to make downtown Salem (Oregon) more vibrant? Great question.
Yesterday I learned about a rather mysterious "Salem 2025" report prepared by John Southgate Consulting and Public Affairs Counsel, a Salem-based government affairs firm headed by Mark Nelson, described as "Oregon’s leading business lobbyist and political strategist."
I call the Salem 2025 report mysterious because it is dated December 2015, yet when I queried the Great God Google there was no online mention of it. Also, Salem 2025 doesn't indicate who initiated and paid for the report.
This morning I phoned the Public Affairs Counsel office and asked to speak to someone about the report. The person who answered said that tomorrow I should get a callback.
Regardless of why Salem 2025 was produced, it contains a lot of wise analysis about the pluses and minuses of downtown Salem, along with generally good ideas about how the urban core can be vitalized.
Here's the Executive Summary:
Downtown Salem, Oregon, is a City that has not fulfilled its potential. It boasts a number of key assets – location immediately adjacent to a beautiful waterfront; a great stock of historic buildings; a healthy economy; and financial capacity in the near term that would be the envy of many larger cities. And yet it has not deployed these assets as effectively as it should, and it also faces some challenges that have prevented Salem from reaching its potential.
Some challenges are physical (difficult access to the waterfront; too many properties that are under-performing; and streets that dominate the urbanscape rather than accommodating pedestrian activity). Other challenges include difficult development economics; a bureaucracy that too often gets in the way of good development; and a tendency over the years to make ad hoc decisions, rather than strategically.
This situation is far from hopeless, if the City leadership (including elected officials, key staff, as well as major players in the private sector) will work together to craft a strategy to guide future investments, a strategy that targets public/urban renewal investments intelligently and in a manner that will catalyze major private investment.
To do this, it will be important for the key private sector players to contribute towards an effort to (1) develop a coherent strategy for downtown focused on how to deploy approximately $30M in urban renewal funds when the Convention Center bonds are paid off in 2018; a strategy incorporating bold moves that dramatically change development dynamics in Salem; (2) build consensus from the constituencies that need to support this strategy, to counter the naysayers and to assure that future elected officials won’t deviate from the strategy with ad hoc/ non-strategic projects and investments; and (3) oversee the implementation of the strategy.
Hard to disagree. Other cities in Oregon and elsewhere have followed a similar approach with great success. (For example, see "Des Moines shows how Salem can become cool.")
The main negative I found in Salem 2025 was undue confidence in the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce to oversee the 1-2-3 effort outlined in the last paragraph of the Executive Summary. I think this would be a mistake.
To its credit, the report accurately notes that the Chamber isn't viewed positively by much of the community, especially after its strong effort to defeat a payroll tax that would have funded improvements to the Cherriots bus system, including weekend and evening service.
A better approach would be to start fresh with an inclusive, creative, energetic group that brings in people who aren't part of the existing Salem Power Structure.
This is in tune with some parts of the report that I heartily agree with:
-- "Our interviews and analysis of other cities draws us to the conclusion that the decision making/ urban renewal authority structure is not a notable factor in the health of Downtown. Instead, it is the people making the decisions, and the absence of a coherent and strategic vision that Salem needs. Bottom line: The problem is leadership and vision."
-- "What Salem does need to do is be thoughtful and strategic about how to capitalize on its assets – in particular its urban renewal bonding authority. Perhaps the biggest challenge that Salem faces is a mindset. Cities that do great things, that change the economic dynamic of their downtowns, require bold and even courageous visionary leadership."
-- "Salem has tremendous assets. And there are some positive early signs that things are changing very much for the better. There is also talent and passion. It’s time to mix those ingredients and DO IT."
-- "It is essential to ensure that there is a broad base of support for the strategy. This work shouldn’t be done in isolation, but rather the strategy should be generated in consultation with the various constituencies that are essential to success, in part to defuse the opposition of any naysayers; in part so that no elected official can deviate from the blueprint."
-- "The greatest challenge will probably not be money, or figuring out the most strategic way to spend it (though this will take some work). Rather, the biggest challenge will be coming up with a way to get buy-in, to counter the negatives, to bypass the benchwarmers, and to garner significant community support. A vision that captures the imagination, and attracts investor confidence."
Here are some of the report's Key Challenges facing downtown (pp. 5-7) which point to ways the area can be made way more attractive.
-- "Lack of energy – a fair amount of negativity, with a few naysayers having an outsize influence; conflicts among and within advocacy groups; pattern of groups starting out with good intentions but disbanding over conflicts, frustration, cynicism. Does Salem really want to grow, become more urban, dense, 'cool'? Put another way, do those who want to see positive change have the fortitude to counter the naysayers, to build coalitions that drive a positive agenda?"
-- "Difficult access to waterfront – you can get there, but the highway and rail line create an obstacle course, especially in north stretch."
-- "Lack of housing choices; dearth of housing (which is essential to sustain an '18 hour city')."
-- "Identity crisis. What is Salem’s brand? Not enough to say 'Oregon’s Capitol' – that doesn’t get the juices flowing. Ashland is Shakespeare. Cannon Beach is cool arts community. Eugene is hip college town. Hillsboro is high tech. What is Salem? Or does the 'brand' really matter?"
I strongly resonate with that last observation. I believe Salem's "brand" does really matter.
I've often thought that Portland Without the Problems is a starting point for creative thinking in this regard, but this too doesn't get the juices flowing, being negative rather than positive.
Intuitively, it seems to me that Salem should build on Marion County's agricultural eminence. We are a city surrounded by beautiful productive farmland. Let's leverage this.
Streetscape downtown by losing lanes and making the Historic District much more pedestrian and cyclist friendly. Plantings, art, exhibits, water features and such could showcase local agriculture, food, and flora.
Create a covered year-round Farmer's Market. Attract more wine and beer businesses. Do away with the ban on downtown breweries. Talk up the Minto Brown Island pedestrian bridge that leads to over a thousand natural acres. Offer bicycle and kayak rentals on the riverfront to give visitors and residents fun outdoor stuff to do.
The ideas are endless. Hopefully the Salem 2025 report will get this town moving in productive directions for downtown.