Community engagement is a favorite buzzword of city governments, but it’s best way to describe what’s going on in Umatilla.
A few years ago city councilors ran unopposed — if any ran at all — and audience numbers at council meetings were in the single digits. Tuesday night an audience of about 30 people watched eight candidates vie for two open seats. An hour before that meeting, there were more than 50 people in the council chambers listening to a presentation about Umatilla’s new downtown revitalization plan.
“Let’s get our unified vision and see if we can make it come together for this community,” planning commission chair Boyd Sharp told the group, eliciting a round of applause. “I think we have an opportunity like never before.”
The council chambers aren’t the only place Umatilla residents gathered this week. On Wednesday, residents were out enjoying the sunshine in Village Square Park, formerly an empty lot across from the Umatilla Public Library, where the city’s new Mid-Week Market is located each Wednesday from 4 to 7 p.m. The market may be small, but such a venture may not have been possible even a year ago, when Landing Days — the city’s signature event, managed by the chamber of commerce — was first canceled and then brought back in diminished form due to lack of volunteers.
Momentum for change in Umatilla is building, and the city hopes the downtown revitalization plan unveiled this week will capitalize on that momentum. The plan, titled Umatilla Together, was created by a group of Portland State University graduate students with input from more than 300 Umatilla residents, elected officials and city staff.
Nate Miller, one of the students who worked on the plan, said design changes to Umatilla could help promote the city as a destination, rather than a bedroom community or a place to get gas on the way to somewhere else. The plan discusses the need for more gathering places suitable for events like the Mid-Week Market, and more “walkability” by adding sidewalks and trails and connecting existing trails.
Miller noted the city’s strong east-west orientation, which contributes to people just driving through on Highway 730. To encourage them to venture off the highway, the plan recommends improving some of the city’s north-south streets, particularly B, F, I, C, Sloan and Jane streets.
The plan also recommends creating a “parks corridor” through town, running north of Fifth Street in the mostly undeveloped area running parallel to downtown. Sixty percent of the space is controlled by the federal government and therefore has limited opportunities for commercial, residential or industrial activity. The parks corridor plan suggests leasing more land from the Army Corps of Engineers to develop public gathering spaces, similar to the lease already in place for an expansion of the Third Street soccer fields. It also suggest working with a landscape architect on projects in the corridor such as using trees to hide the city’s recycled water treatment facility from view.
“It creates a base for trails, and creates a destination for the north-south streets,” Miller said. “We know that parks draw people.”
On the west end of town, Miller said there are opportunities to encourage more housing development with views of the Umatilla River, Columbia River and parks corridor. He said the PSU students also recommend creating a “confluence overlook” where people can stop and look out over where the two rivers meet. Once Umatilla reaches its goal of re-opening the Old Town Site along the Columbia to the public, the students also suggested a goal of creating a Heritage Center where tourists can learn about the site.
“The city can begin to put itself on the map and really start thinking of itself as a destination,” Miller said.
Other ideas included increasing accessibility for people with disabilities, putting together a transportation plan and adding more color and art downtown. The plan also fits in with the Oregon Department of Transportation’s plan to redevelop Sixth Street, adding sidewalk bulb-outs and other features encouraging traffic to slow town starting in spring 2018. The full Umatilla Together presentation is available at city hall or electronically.
Not every citizen in attendance Tuesday was fully on board — one questioned the wisdom of giving up possible business locations in the parks corridor for “a little bit of grass” and another said the plan did not seem to take senior citizens into account. But many said they had never before seen such a large effort to plan for Umatilla’s future.
Even those who were not selected for the open council seats had positive things to say about the city’s potential.
Lyle Smith, a former city councilor who was also one of the candidates not selected Tuesday, said he believes the city is doing “really well” right now. He cited the annual citywide cleanup effort that is getting “bigger and better” each year, the increase in city events, planning efforts for parks and downtown and the up-tick in community involvement.
“When I was a city councilor before, if we had eight people at a city council meeting that was a big turnout, and last night we had eight people who applied for a city council position,” he said.
James Deacon has never held elected office before or served on a city committee, but he threw his hat in the ring for city council, citing a desire to see downtown Umatilla brought to life. He said he thought Umatilla could benefit by having a cohesive theme downtown, similar to the Old West theme in Sisters, and could work to recruit businesses that would draw people in from Hermiston and the Tri-Cities.
“If Umatilla could do something like that to draw people off the highway, just about the time they’re getting tired, we could bring people in,” he said.
He promised the city council on Tuesday night that even if he didn’t get selected he had decided that making the city of Umatilla a better place to live would be his “passion from this point forward.”
Clayton Hayes, another council candidate who had never served on a city council before, said he would like to see Umatilla become more of a bicycle and pedestrian-friendly community. He said he and his family use the trails offered around Umatilla but it would be nice if they were more connected.
He said the best way for the city to fill empty storefronts on Sixth Street is to make Umatilla an attractive place to work and live.
“If there’s money to be made, someone will come in here,” he said.
Contact Jade McDowell at email@example.com or 541-564-4536.