With the urban renewal district nearing the end of its lifespan, the Pendleton Development Commission met to discuss the last six years of its current term and the possibility of extending it further.
Moderated by Susan Bower of Eastern Oregon Business Source, members of the Pendleton City Council and its associated committees met Friday to consider the future of the urban renewal district: should it maintain its current path, tweak some of its goals and programming, or should the development commission target certain areas for improvement.
At the beginning of the meeting, Charles Denight, the commission’s associate director, went through a presentation that detailed some of the urban renewal district’s successes.
Since its start in 2003, the commission’s investments are almost evenly split between $2.2 million for public projects that included land purchases, gateway enhancements and parks, and $2.1 million for private investments within the district.
The lion’s share of private investments went to the façade program, which provides grants to downtown businesses and buildings interested in improving their storefronts. As Denight flipped through the slides, he showed as the stucco and wood of the pre-renewal façades gave way to the red-brick frontages that more closely resemble their historical character.
The façade program was a point of pride for many participants, especially the St. George Plaza project, which brightened a formerly derelict building. Denight said the façade grant program was still providing assistance to projects like the Oregon Grain Growers Brand Distillery, Sisters Cafe and Dairy Queen.
A few audience members also lauded the second-story program and the commission’s efforts to catalog the vacant historic spaces and work with building owners to develop them. Jordan McDonald, a member of the commission’s advisory committee, said the program needs to remain a priority, and could bring some properties back onto the tax rolls.
“If they’re not assessed, it’s like they’re invisible,” he said. “Putting them back in use is like building a new building. To me, that’s the most important thing we can do.”
But not every program has bore fruit. A few commission and committee members mentioned the river quarter, a stretch of Court Avenue land by the Umatilla River between Southwest First Street and Southwest 10th Street that was supposed to use incentives to spur riverfront development. To date, no private developer has used the incentive or started any development.
Chuck Wood, a former city councilor and commission chairman, said the river quarter was a “jewel” that was being “totally underutilized.” Councilor Neil Brown compared the area to the Pearl District in Portland, saying it was too expensive to develop.
Other meeting attendees said the commission needed to focus more on blight. Paul Chalmers, a councilor and commission chairman, called it the “elephant in the room.”
Mayor John Turner said combating blight was easier said than done.
“It’s easy to talk about (blight),” he said. “It’s easy to come up with plans to try to improve it. But to actually implement those plans, it’s very frustrating.”
Rather than propose broad, overarching ideas, some attendees favored targeting specific areas for improvement.
Denight liked the idea of improving the urban renewal district on a block-by-block basis. More specifically, Denight wanted to target the LaDow Block at the 200 block of Court Avenue, as well as Zimmerman & Co. True Value Hardware for façade grants.
City Manager Robb Corbett also had a specific list of projects he wants the commission to accomplish, including more festive lighting in the downtown area during Christmas, moving the Union Pacific Railroad switch yard out of the downtown area and finding a sustainable source of funding for the Pendleton Downtown Association. The merchant organization currently relies on the commission for operational costs.
Several councilors seemed open to the idea of the commission buying blighted properties and working with a private developer to develop them.
The meeting ended without a consensus on whether the district should continue beyond 2023. Councilor Scott Fairley suggested more public input and work would need to be done before that decision was made.
“Let’s identify what we want to accomplish and let’s see if that merits extending the district,” he said.
Contact Antonio Sierra at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0836.