Excellent news! A Strong Salem group has emerged on Facebook that seeks to do a heck of a lot more than just exist in cyberspace.
If you're on Facebook, join the group and get in on the ground floor of what promises to be a force for positive change in this town. For example, one of the first posts on Strong Salem talks about the Our Salem effort aimed at updating the Comprehensive Plan.
A primary motivation for starting up this group is to keep a close eye on the the "Our Salem" project at the City, which is a multi-year effort to revise the Salem Comprehensive Plan. The webpage below has lots of information about this you may want to review. As meetings are scheduled in the future we will work to notify everyone so that we can be fully engaged in the process. Our goal is to bring a lot of Strong Towns thinking to the revision of our comprehensive plan.
I first learned about Strong Towns, an organization with a national presence, when its founder -- Chuck Marohn -- gave a talk at the Salem Library in 2016. Before the talk, Marohn got a tour of Salem from some locals.
So his talk was informed by some knowledge of what Salem is doing right, and wrong. I wrote about his talk in "Five 'Strong Town' things Salem is doing wrong."
Here they are, with excerpts from my 2016 blog post:
(1) End our Ponzi Scheme development approach.
This truth is at the core of the Strong Towns philosophy: almost always, building new roads, water lines, sewers, and such doesn't pay off in the long-term. Even if private developers pay the full bill for the initial infrastructure construction, the increased taxes generated by the new development isn't nearly enough to pay for maintenance of what has been built.
Roads need to be repaired. Water and sewer lines break, or need to be replaced.
So since the new development isn't generating enough revenue to pay for long-term maintenance, Salem has to keep playing the Ponzi Scheme game: keep building new stuff that produces short-term revenue, but long-term debt.
(2) Fix what we have first; build new stuff last.
"We are fools if we build more," Marohn, who toured Salem yesterday morning, said. He made similar negative comments about the $500 million proposed Third Bridge several times during his talk.
As noted above, his main theme was that cities can't afford to build costly infrastructure that costs way MORE money to maintain over coming decades. "How much does your tax base have to go up to pay for this project?" he asked.
The answer is that there is no way the economic benefit of the Third Bridge is going to exceed the costs. This is how cities like Salem go broke: they make stupid, rather than smart, decisions about how to grow.
(3) Downtown and lower-income neighborhoods need to be priority #1.
Last night Marohn showed other slides that gave a graphical view of the most economically vital areas of a typical town. It isn't suburban places like south Commercial Street. Rather, it is the downtown area, and the older more densely populated neighborhoods that surround downtown.
THIS is where City officials should concentrate on spending public funds. But they aren't.
The core of Salem is a net financial plus for the City of Salem, while sprawling suburban development is a net minus. So why is so much attention given to expensive road improvements in the suburbs, when that money would be much more wisely spent on bike paths, neighborhood greenways, streetscaping, and such in Salem's central area?
Answer: the unwise Ponzi Scheme mentality.
(4) Stop stupid subsidies to developers and corporations.
Marohn was highly critical of the tax subsidies City officials routinely give to both local Salem developers (like Mountain West Investments for the old Boise Cascade site along the riverfront) and corporations seeking an incentive to locate here (like property tax breaks given to occupants of the Mill Creek Corporate Center).
He said that tax subsidies no longer work, so it doesn't pay to offer them, adding "We have a name for paying someone to love you." Or more accurately, pretend to love you.
The City of Salem shouldn't be prostituting itself to lure developers and corporations into its economic development fantasy room. As is evident by the fact that Portland and Eugene are kicking Salem's butt when it comes to attracting high-growth, high-wage companies, Marohn said it is important for us to "build up our cultural presence so high-quality people move here."
(5) Embrace bottom-up, not top-down, development.
Marohn started off his talk by showing photos of his home town in Minnesota in the early 1900s. Here's a similar one of Salem that I found online.
He pointed out that back then cities didn't have complicated zoning codes, rooms full of planners, voluminous rules and regulations. They just grew. What worked, remained and was built on. What didn't work, faded away.
This was also true for Ur and Rome, Marohn said. Humans have experimented with what makes for a vibrant, vital, livable city for thousands of years. In the not-so-old days, Salem and other towns grew organically, from the bottom-up.
But when an autocentric era really took off after World War II, the United States began a very rushed experiment with suburban sprawl and car-focused urban planning. The experiment has failed, in large part because people haven't sat back and taken a calm, cool look at its results.
Since at least around the middle of the 20th century, the leaders of most North American cities have had Shiny New Toy Syndrome. We have expanded outward at an unprecedented rate, building vastly more roads, pipes, pumps, and power lines than ever before—simply because those things are new, and new growth shows as a big win on the budget sheet.