As reported by the Salem Breakfast on Bikes blog, a new downtown group has been formed -- the Salem Main Street Association.
On Thursday the 20th, the nascent Salem "Main Street" project is going to have something of an Open House at the Ike Box.
I'm planning to attend the get-together at the IKE Box because I heartily agree with the bottom-line sentiment on the group's flyer: Here's to a vibrant downtown.
However, I and others have questions and concerns about this latest attempt to form an organization that should represent the varied interests of downtown visitors, residents, businesses, and property owners. Hopefully these issues will be addressed at the kick-off event next Thursday:
[UPDATE] I've gotten a copy of the Corporation Division filing for the Salem Main Street Alliance (or Salem Downtown Alliance). It answers some of the questions posed below. See:
Download SOS - Corporation - Business Entity Filing Records - 125296491
The Association was incorporated as a public benefit 501(c)(3) corporation on September 23, 2016. John Hawkins is the registered agent. The Salem Main Street Alliance will not have members, so the board of directors won't be elected by downtown residents, businesses, or property owners. This could be problematic, since I've heard that typically downtown associations are 501(c)(6) organizations which have members.
The seven incorporators were: Jim Vu, Hazel Patton, Curtis Fisher, T.J. Sullivan, Caren Ann Jackson, Gayle Caldarazzo-Doty, and John Hawkins.
On November 1, 2016 an amendment was filed to change the name of the organization to the Salem Main Street Association.
Download Change of name
(1) Secrecy. For several months I've been hearing talk about the formation of the Salem Main Street Association, but it's been difficult to learn much about it. When I Google the group's name, all that comes up are references to a Main Street group in Salem, Massachusetts. So as noted below, somehow the Salem Main Street Association has managed to organize itself and attempt to suck up start-up funds from the City of Salem with very little or no public involvement.
(2) Use of Parking Budget funds. In February 2017 minutes of the Downtown Advisory Board (DAB) show that representatives of the Salem Main Street Association asked for $50,000 in Parking Budget funds to start up their organization. The DAB voted to not increase the allocated $32,150 for "contracted services," but the minutes don't say whether DAB intends to support the Association. Though minutes of the March and April DAB meetings aren't available, the agendas for those meetings don't show any action on the Salem Main Street Association request.
(3) "Manage funds related to the economic vitality of downtown Salem." The flyer above lists this as one of the things the Salem Main Street Association does. I'll be interested to learn what funds are going to be managed, since so far there is no sign of public funds being approved for the Association by the City of Salem. If this were to happen, seemingly it would have to occur through an open competitive contracting process. After all, this is a newly-formed private group with no history, and there already are other private organizations doing promotion work in downtown Salem.
(4) Current board members/leadership. The flyer says we'll be able to meet the Board of Directors at the kick-off Salem Main Street Association public reveal on Thursday. I've heard that Mayor Chuck Bennett is a board member, and might even be chairing the Association. If true, this raises "political" questions.
Bennett has been an advocate for installing parking meters downtown. While a city councilor he also was instrumental in dissolving a previous downtown association and allowing the City Manager at the time, Linda Norris, to take over control of downtown Economic Improvement District funds. (See here and here.) Given this history, some skepticism about the current motives of Mayor Bennett is warranted.
More generally, it doesn't seem wise to have any City of Salem officials on the Salem Main Street Association board. The Association should stand up for the interests of downtown, not the interests of the City of Salem (a main one being, more revenue!). Sometimes a downtown association has to oppose unwise policies of City officials. If some of those officials are on the association board, this creates a decided conflict of interest.
(5) Future leadership. Since formation of the Salem Main Street Association occurred in almost total secrecy, obviously the current board of directors was hand-picked by a few organizers. If the Association truly wants to be an "advocate for downtown businesses, property owners, and residents" as the flyer says, it is going to have to be a lot more open, transparent, inclusive, and democratic from this point forward.
Will a new board be elected by proverbial downtown "stakeholders"? Shouldn't downtown businesses, property owners, and residents get to vote on the people who will represent them via the Salem Main Street Association?
Look, I'm cautiously optimistic about this new group. Downtown Salem needs a broad-based association. (Which, by the way, should include people like me who frequently visit downtown and are patrons of businesses there; without us, the Historic District would be a ghost town.)
It's just that the recent history of Salem downtown associations has been marked by a lot of political game-playing by City of Salem officials, both elected and appointed.
If this new Salem Main Street Association becomes just one more special interest group, rather than a genuinely inclusive organization that works to bring people who care about downtown together rather than drive them apart, there's no way it can succeed.
So I look forward to seeing how next Thursday's IKE Box meeting goes.
Hopefully those who got the Salem Main Street Association started will explain how a much broader collection of people concerned about downtown now will be brought in to guide the future course of the Association.
For example, one of the first discussion topics should be the current excessive "autoism" of downtown. This was a central theme of the Salem Breakfast on Bikes blog post. I loved this graphic and accompanying commentary, which points to the importance of streetscaping downtown Salem.
(The graphic shows how four traffic lanes can become two lanes, opening up valuable real estate for economically productive activity.)
The Main Street concept has great utility, but in order for it to accomplish anything of magnitude, it requires modifying our attachments to autoism.
Without that, it will be more cosmetic than structural and enduring.