City News

State of the City 2020: What local leaders think

Mayor Chuck Bennett responds to questions from the a crowd of neighbors at Pringle Community Hall. The city plans to turn the hall into an emergency homeless shelter through the end of March. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Salem’s homeless residents, the city’s budget and infrastructure will likely headline this year’s State of the City Address, according to Mayor Chuck Bennett, but two weeks will pass before he delivers the sweeping, annual speech Feb. 12 at the Salem Convention Center, 200 Commercial St. S.E.

Salem Reporter asked local politicians, nonprofit leaders and members of the business community for their own assessment of the city’s condition. What’s working? What’s not working? What would they say if it was their turn at the lectern?

Chris Hoy, Salem city councilor

If Hoy gave the speech, he said, his would balance the work that’s been done to help homeless residents with the work that needs to be done soon — with the public’s help.

He touted the city’s success in launching its Homeless Rental Assistance Program, which uses city dollars to help house chronically homeless people. It began two years ago and has housed more than 200 people.

“The HRAP program has been a success — certainly not as big as what we (need), but, for what we want it to do, it’s been a huge success,” Hoy said.

Yet homelessness will remain a challenge, he said. While the city has a small handful of housing projects in the works for housing, social services like temporary shelter space will need to grow, too.

“Managing homelessness, ending homelessness — we’re still trying to tackle those things,” he said.

It’s an effort that will need everybody’s help, Hoy noted. Facing a budget shortfall, councilors recently agreed to tack a fee onto the city’s utility bills to raise money. Voters will also decide in May whether to approve a tax on workers in city limits. The combined mechanisms could generate millions.

“We’re looking to beef up our public safety — whether that’s homeless services or police and fire or code enforcement — so we’re trying to do that on a patchwork basis,” he said. “Our revenue has not kept pace with our population, so we’re trying to resolve that through new revenue sources and I’m hoping the community will see that for what it is and get on board.”

Besides homelessness, Hoy also praised city employees for preventing algae from breaching the city’s water supply, as it did in 2018. He also applauded planners who are currently working on the city’s next comprehensive plan which will outline how everything from schools, homes, businesses and roads will be added to the city.

Tom Hoffert, left, stands next to Michael Roth of Roth’s Fresh Markets at Gerry Frank’s 96th birthday party. (Mary Louise VanNatta/Special to Salem Reporter)

Tom Hoffert, CEO, Salem Area Chamber of Commerce

Hoffert’s speech would hit similar notes: homelessness, city funds, and planning. But his tilts the perspective towards business owners. The organization he helms counts roughly 1,000 businesses as members, he said.

Businesses are doing well in the city, Hoffert said, but homelessness poses a challenge. After the city council banned tents and other structures in December, many homeless residents have decided to avoid the rain by stationing under overhangs and awnings downtown.

“Businesses are continuing to find a home in Salem, despite some of the challenges occurring in our downtown core,” Hoffert said.

The events highlight a need for elected officials, nonprofits and businesses to work together, he said. He added that elected officials need to be more assertive in finding fixes.

“There’s not a concrete leadership group taking on a community, collective voice on the homeless issues,” he said. “I think that needs to be generated from council.”

One proposal business owners are keeping an eye on, he said, is the tax on workers. The tax would raise funds for public safety in Salem Hoffert said there are “yet-to-be-answered questions” about what falls under the umbrella of “public safety.”

“They haven’t stated how they’re going to dedicate this to public safety. You can say it’s dedicated to public safety, but what does that mean?” Hoffert said. “There’s a lot of questions in there.”

Hoffert also said the city needs to be planning for Salem’s growth. City officials expect tens of thousands of new residents in the coming decade. Hoffert said it will be important to look at “how we’re going to keep commerce flowing and not gridlocking our city.”

Hoffert also applauded steps taken by the city to keep algae out of the water supply.

Ian Davidson, board director, Salem Area Mass Transit District

When it comes to planning, Davidson, who joined Cherriots’ board last year, would urge residents to think about public transit.

Cherriots recently restored bus service on Saturdays, Davidson noted, and recently received a grant that will help buses get through intersections to stay on schedule. His speech would agree with Hoffert’s and Hoy’s that planning will be key to handle Salem’s expected population growth.

“The updates to the (city’s) comprehensive plan… I think that’s huge. That’s never easy,” he said.

Davidson noted that planning should include helping the bus system grow to accommodate thousands of new residents who may otherwise bring thousands more cars.

“There needs to be additional investment in transit,” he said. “That won’t come without changes. I think public transit is a ready-made solution to that.”

If he was giving the State of the City Address, Davidson said he’d hope to have something new to bring to Salem residents. An example, he said, would be protected bike lanes or more ways to keep buses running on time.

Levi Herrera-Lopez, executive director, Mano a Mano

A speech by Herrera-Lopez would cover the economy, housing and homelessness, but it would turn the spotlight away from downtown.

That central business district gets most of the attention, he said, but there are many people elsewhere in the city who are either homeless or on the brink. Herrera-Lopez is executive director of Mano a Mano, whose mission is to help families with basic needs, mentorship and more.

“I see poverty getting worse,” he said. “That’s a huge concern.”

Many stay with family and friends but nonetheless struggle, he said. About 35% more families than last year have asked Mano a Mano for food boxes, rental assistance and medical aid, he said. And although apartments are being built, rents are too expensive.

“There’s a lot of construction happening, but, anecdotally, people coming in and saying we need help finding affordable housing — a lot of that new housing is not affordable, not for people who are working part-time jobs or working minimum wage,” he said.

East Salem, he said, is just as vital to the city.

“I don’t hear a lot about economic development in east Salem, as much as I hear about downtown,” he said. “East Salem is where most of lower income housing and multifamily housing is, you see a lot of that. Obviously there’s more criminal activity … I think economic development policies really should look at how to create more jobs and support small businesses throughout the city.”

Still, Salem has become more inclusive to the Latinx community, Herrera-Lopez said. He sees more efforts to hire bilingual staff to help people who aren’t native English speakers.

“Just seeing other things that have been happening with the city, a push for inclusivity and reflect the reality of what Salem is right now, has been really positive,” he said.

Herrera-Lopez said, if he gave the address, he would ask people to leave comfort zones and collaborate with others.

“I still see people staying within their own tribe, thinking about issues facing our community in relation to how it affects their own tribe,” he said. “What we need is to become united.”

Adriana Miranda takes a selfie with the crowd during a DACA and TPS rally Tuesday. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Adriana Miranda, executive director, Causa

Miranda also called for unity. Her speech, she told Salem Reporter, would rally a concerted effort for all Salem’s residents to stay housed and get medical care.

“We envision a world where all people have opportunities needed to thrive,” said Miranda, executive director of Causa, an Oregon immigrants rights group. “I strongly feel there should be resources for all in our city. The more resources for some doesn’t have to mean less for others.”

Miranda said many Latinx immigrants are also close to homelessness. Like Herrera-Lopez, she called it a citywide issue while noting the unique challenges facing immigrants.

“These communities are already vulnerable to these situations,” she said.

Asked what is working well in Salem, Miranda described a more “vibrant atmosphere” lately that hasn’t always been around in her 30 years in the city.

“There’s a lot happening in our city and our parks, as far as activities for families,” she said. “We live in a very diverse city. It’s been nice to be downtown, walking, and there’s pop-up concerts happening – just more of a vibrant atmosphere that is also welcoming to families.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.