Salem no longer has a downtown association. We need one. What happened at last night's City Council meeting is only one of many reasons why.
But before I explain what transpired at the meeting, a bit of relevant history about how downtown lost its downtown association is in order. I wrote about this in a couple of blog posts.
My November 2013 post "Should Salem City Manager be known as Exalted Emperor Linda Norris?" explained how the existing downtown association, Salem Downtown Partnership, had its contract terminated by the City Council after Chuck Bennett (then a city councilor, now Mayor) made a motion to allow the City of Salem to take control of Economic Improvement District money that had been funding Salem Downtown Partnership.
The City Manager, Norris, then essentially acted like a one-person downtown association. A Statesman Journal story quoted in the blog post said:
Business booster groups for merchants have a rocky history in this city, but Salem City Manager Linda Norris has personally taken on the task of marketing downtown.
For about nine months, Norris has overseen marketing and beautification plans with advice from her hand-picked City Manager Downtown Steering Committee. The 16-member group, includes Norris, Urban Development Department Director John Wales and representatives of business interests.
Norris, with her advisory group, determines the use of about $313,000 in funds collected from property owners in downtown’s Economic Improvement District.
By May 2014 I'd learned more about how and why the City of Salem had taken over the downtown association. Here's how "City of Salem took over Salem Downtown Partnership for lousy reasons" started out.
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.
After describing a lot of details about how City staff orchestrated the failure of the downtown association, I said:
Rather, the real concern is with how the City of Salem, in the person of Linda Norris, is mismanaging the EID funds contributed by businesses. She is treating the money as her own private fiefdom. But what downtown really needs is an independent organization that decides how to promote the area and is an autonomous voice for downtown interests.
Thus frustration is high.
So much so, there is an effort to grab the City's attention to how badly it has screwed up the EID via a remonstrance process where the Economic Improvement District would be dissolved if, as the newspaper story says, "the city receives written objections from downtown property owners on which more than 33 percent of the assessment is levied."
That process succeeded, and the Economic Improvement District was dissolved, thanks to a campaign led by Carole Smith. Smith and her husband were the key businesspeople who got Salem Downtown Partnership up and running. Smith also ran against Chuck Bennett in the 2016 Mayoral race.
So here we are in 2017.
A new group, Salem Main Street Association, was formed in April, as I discussed in "New Salem Main Street Association debuts with questions and concerns." Among other things, I noted that the Association doesn't really deserve its name, since it doesn't have any members.
Rather, it is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization with a self-selected board of directors. Meaning, the board established by the founders chooses new board members. Since there aren't any members -- such as downtown business owners -- Salem Main Street Association isn't at all like a real downtown association.
A Salem Weekly cover story made this clear.
SMSA will have no members, meaning that all significant decisions will be made exclusively by its board. The board is self-selecting, itself appointing and replacing board members. Bylaws say that only “owners, employees, partners or associates of businesses and residents living downtown” may serve on the board.
None the less, they asked for $32,000 from Parking District funds. And last night the City Council passed an ordinance that allows the City Manager to give grants that "further economic promotion activity."
Download Resolution Economic Promotion
Interestingly, the resolution doesn't mention the Salem Main Street Association. I have to assume that a separate budget document authorizes the $32,000 to go to that group, rather than being available to other organizations that might want to engage in downtown economic promotions.
I watched last night's City Council meeting via CCTV. What bothers me is the resemblance of what transpired yesterday with what happened back in 2013, when the City Manager started acting as a downtown association. Once again, funds to promote downtown are being doled out by the City Manager.
And City Council members asked very few questions about the $32,000 that's been earmarked for Salem Main Street Association. Guest councilor Mark Wigg (substituting for Tom Andersen) couldn't vote, but he did ask about a letter from Carole Smith that was critical of that money being awarded to the group.
Here's a video I made of the rubber stamping by the Council of the $32,000. Kristin Retherford, Urban Development Director, is first seen, then Mark Wigg. He can't even fully say Carole Smith's name before he is interrupted by Mayor Bennett (Bennett and Smith have a tangled history, to put it mildly).
The upshot of all this is that it points to the need for a genuine Salem downtown association. Once again, City of Salem political games are being played with Parking District money, just as happened before with Economic Improvement District funds.
The City Manager shouldn't be controlling how funds contributed by downtown businesses are spent.
This should be the responsibility of a genuine downtown association that is broadly representative of not only downtown businesses, but also people who live downtown, and maybe also people like me who patronize downtown businesses and care about the success of the Historic District area.
I get the impression that Salem Main Street Association is angling to be treated like a downtown association without actually being one. I also have a suspicion that Mayor Bennett and other City officials want to have parking meters installed downtown, and they see the Salem Main Street Association as a willing accomplice in helping to make that happen.
Lastly, below is what Carole Smith said in a letter that was included in last night's agenda, being advance public testimony on the ordinance that allows the City Manager to make economic promotion grants from Parking District money. I wish members of the City Council had discussed her concerns before approving the ordinance.
And it is indeed weird that, as Smith notes, some six months after its public kickoff, Salem Main Street Association just has a blank "under construction" web site nor any other online presence other than a Facebook page with no postings since April 12. This isn't a sign of a vibrant group that is reaching out to Salem citizens and the downtown community.
Yet it just got $32,000 from the City of Salem. I agree with Carole Smith. Something feels wrong here. Read on for Carole's critique.
Honorable City Council,
Sorry to write to you again. I notice the award of the Parking District funds may be awarded to the new Mainstreet Organization
I want you all to know, this organization has not made any attempt to communicate with the business and property owners downtown. The board has not committed any of their own funds to communication with downtown business/property owners. They were created in secret and they have refused to name their board of directors. This board discriminates against the majority of downtown and property/business owners downtown by not allowing them on their board.
Patricia at 1895 Cider Shop, a board member of the Mainstreet Organization, told me the present board did not ask any "'old people' downtown to join the board." This is clear discrimination.
The organization is a 503.C.3 Charitable Organization instead of a 501.C.6 like other downtown organizations. A charitable organization is not the correct structure for a downtown organization.
The Mainstreet Organization elected to have "no members". This means they do not represent anyone but themselves. When new board members are elected they can only be elected by the present board member, not the downtown community. They DO NOT REPRESENT the downtown community.
The Mainstreet program has existed now for over a year and never once have they communicated with the downtown business and property owners. They do not communicate when their board meetings are, they do not have a website, they do not email us, they do not represent us and they have had over a year to do so. This show they have no intention of working with us, or listen to us. If they are unwilling to use their own funds to create this organization then they don't have much invested and you should not fund them until they show they are personally financially committed to the downtown community.
Please do not award this organization the Parking District funds. We desperately need a downtown organization that represents us, formed by us, supporting programs and projects we want and run by us. This is NOT that organization. They do not deserve funding until they show they stop discriminating against us, start representing us, are willing to work with us, and LISTEN to what we want done downtown. Until then, no funds.
Thank you, Carole