We support the proposed 4 cent per gallon increase in Pendleton's gas tax to help finish the extension of Barnhart Road for business sites at the airport. The first reading of the measure comes before the Pendleton City Council Tuesday evening. Pendleton's airport has the only sizable, flat, vacant land for sites at a time the community's economy needs help.
The goal of the new road is to avoid a 6 percent or higher grade that a truck now encounters in going to the airport. City officials said the lack of that straight shot to the airport has been a deal breaker with prospective airport occupants.
City officials already have approved moving ahead with a road that would allow large trucks to leave the freeway at Woodpecker Trucks and head directly to airport sites. The Barnhart project can go ahead either with or without the proposed gas tax hike - the city already has a sizable grant for the project. But city officials said that without the tax increase, they might well have to siphon funding from other city projects to cover the city's debt obligation.
New jobs on airport land are not the only hope for Pendleton's economy. Civic improvements are planned as part of the Round-Up's centennial in 2010. And it makes sense - after we surmount the recession - to try to encourage existing businesses in town to grow. But opening up the airport makes clear sense when outside companies are looking for storage and distribution sites to serve the growing Northwest, and high-tech firms are open to sites outside metropolitan areas.
As the city council considers the Barnhart tax proposal, we have a suggestion to make. Rather than simply pass the tax proposal, we think it would be appropriate to refer the measure to a vote of the people- for two reasons. First, when Pendleton considered a temporary gas tax hike for the west entrance overpass, the question was placed on the ballot by citizen petition. So why not place it on the ballot at the outset? The second reason is this piece of Pendleton's economic situation - how to pay for the Barnhart extension - should involve everybody.
While Hermiston, Boardman, Walla Walla and the Confederated Umatilla Tribes have been growing jobs smartly through business expansion, Pendleton keeps improving its physical facilities but has not done economically much else. In the meantime, buildings and stores have emptied and classrooms have been mothballed. Some of the problem is the affection so many Pendletonians have for their town. They are inclined to be picky about what changes take place. That's OK. When you're planning the future of a jewel like Pendleton, you should be discriminating. But don't be picky to the point of paralysis.
In placing the proposed gas tax hike on the ballot, city council members would be inviting everyone to take part in deciding Pendleton's future. That's the way it should be. That's what members of the new economic development advisory board did recently in holding two public sessions on Barnhart Road at the Convention Center. Give people a chance to ask questions, complain and - best of all - make suggestions for how to build Pendleton's future. The town has lots of smart minds, some of whom don't come to public meetings. Efforts should be made to enlist their participation.
Economic development should involve the whole town. When business officials survey sites, they look at the whole community. The labor pool for sure but also the availability of housing, quality of schools and the level of medical care. Pendleton has many physical assets: great transportation access, superb public use facilities, lots of Western history, arts attractions, an enviable climate. It also has a key intangible: an environment that has bred success and teamwork. There are stories aplenty of people who have fallen for Pendleton after a couple of days in town. All Pendletonians need to help sell the community.
Speaking of visitors, the gas tax at Pendleton pumps gets motorists from all over to help pay for economic development in the community. That's a plus.
The proposed measure is to expire as soon as the Barnhart project is paid off. In the meantime, city officials have pledged to apply for more grants for the project, which could make the tax hike idea unnecessary.
The gas tax measure is needed but it's time to involve all Pendleton residents in shaping the town's future.