A credible source has told me that, following the defeat of the $82 million police facility bond measure a few weeks ago, City officials plan to use urban renewal funds to buy the old O'Brien auto dealership site where the police facility was planned to be built.
The budget for the facility showed $5.5 million for site acquisition. I believe the City of Salem had an option to buy the property, which apparently is owned by the Delon family, but the option expires before next year.
Hence, the need to find a way to tie up the police facility site so a public safety PLAN B -- hopefully a smaller, lower cost police building, plus seismic retrofitting of City Hall and the Library -- can be passed by voters as early as 2017.
I readily admit that I'm no expert on urban renewal financing. So these are just my snap reactions to the news that $5.5 million in urban renewal funds may be used to buy the O'Brien property.
(1) This probably makes sense. Even though there's a good argument for building a Plan B police facility elsewhere, because the O'Brien property is so close to downtown it seems a shame to pass up a chance to use that prime acreage for a cool mixed-use development (housing, shops, etc.), it would complicate things to start over with a police facility site search.
(2) However, this doesn't seem like a proper long-term use for urban renewal funds. Aren't these supposed to be used to spur development in blighted areas that can't attract private investments? That sure doesn't sound like the O'Brien property. It was just in March of 2015 that a Statesman Journal story said:
With Lithia Motors's recent relocation to a new facility off Salem Parkway, a space that's ripe with opportunity has opened in downtown Salem.
It's unknown what may come — or when — to the vacated space at Commercial and Division Streets NE. The property has only been vacant a few weeks.
(3) So it seems that if urban renewal money is used to purchase the O'Brien property, revenue from a Plan B police facility bond should be used to pay back those funds. A police facility won't be paying any property taxes. And there are many other uses for urban renewal funds in the downtown area.
Along that line, I checked out the agenda for tonight's joint City Council and Urban Renewal Agency work session, which involved SEDCOR (Strategic Economic Development Corporation).
The powerpoint presentations linked to in the agenda weren't totally comprehensible without an accompanying narrative. Still, a few things caught my eye.
Fairly recently there were a bunch of downtown focus group meetings. The ideas for improving the area were much more appealing than buying the land for a new police facility. Here's some of them:
So if urban renewal funds are used for a $5.5 million purchase of the police facility site, this sure seems like an unwise use of that money -- unless proceeds from a PLAN B bond sale are used to repay the urban renewal agency.
A new police facility isn't going to be a draw for tourists, make downtown more economically vibrant, or improve the attractiveness of Salem's urban core. The sorts of "Magic Wand" ideas in the slide above would.
I'm particularly enamored of having more 2-way, 2-lane streets in the Historic District. This would go a long way toward making downtown more pedestrian and cyclist friendly, which would draw more people to shop, work, and live in the area.
Bottom line for me: if this rumor turns out to be true, and urban renewal funds are used to buy the O'Brien property so it can be used for a PLAN B police facility, this should be a temporary loan until a public safety bond is approved by voters. There are much better alternative uses for $5.5 million than purchasing land for a police facility.
Lastly, I can't help saying something about this SEDCOR slide used in tonight's presentation. Geez, I divided $60.5 million by 397 and found that each new and retained job cost $152,393.
This goes to confirm my belief, one shared by many others much more knowledgeable about economic development that I am, that essentially bribing companies to come to Salem doesn't pay off. Let's make Salem more attractive, livable, and vibrant. Then new businesses and residents will flock here willingly. Without a bribe.