Retooling Salem building for social services awaits legislative action

Tim Sinatra wasn’t sure how many of Salem’s leaders would show up to consider an idea brewing in his mind to help local people.

He recognized community executives in local government and nonprofits tend to be busy. Getting more than a few in the same meeting is a feat.

So Sinatra, the executive director of the Family YMCA of Marion & Polk Counties, was surprised by the turnout of two dozen people that May day in 2022.

“There’s something here,” Sinatra thought. “These people are busy.”

That session sparked an ambitious plan now awaiting financial help from the Oregon Legislature.

If funding comes, social service workers for both government and nonprofits will set up operations inside a central service center in downtown Salem. The center would be housed in the long-shuttered Statesman Journal building at 280 Church St. N.E.

State Sen. Deb Patterson, a Democrat from Salem, is making it a priority in the current session to direct $6.28 million for the work. Her legislation, Senate Bill 1570, is pending. The money is for remodeling portions of the Statesman Journal building that would house social service workers.

Sinatra is motivated by finding new ways to serve people who need help, whether education for job training, receiving state aid to feed their family or avoiding going homeless.

The idea is to bring representatives of various entities together in what would be a one-stop help center.

“This model prevents minor social circumstances from spiraling out of control, ultimately reducing social service costs,” according to a briefing paper on the project. Some 15 organizations, ranging from the Boys & Girls Club to Salem Health, support the center.

“It’s going to meet the community members where they are at,” Sinatra said, sparing people the need to travel to different offices for varied services. “We’re flipping this from what’s the matter with you to what matters to you.”

Some nonprofits might move their entire operation into the remodeling building. Other organizations might assign a few staff to the help center.

Sinatra has plenty of interest from such organizations. That was apparent at that first meeting two years ago.

Leaders from nonprofit groups and government agencies rate with fingers a proposal to create a social service hub in Salem. They voted during a meeting in May 2022. (Salem YMCA photo)

At the time, he noted to the gathered executives that the area was rich already in human services. The YMCA had its new building and was on the way to finishing a new veterans’ housing complex across the street. The Center for Hope & Safety, serving victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, was just a couple of blocks away.

An added bonus for the Statesman Journal building was its location across from the Downtown Transit Center, allowing a convenient commute for those seeking the center’s help.

After Sinatra’s briefing in 2022, he asked those in the meeting to signal by raised fingers their reaction to the idea with five fingers being tops.

“To me, it looked like it was a 4.2 average. I thought, ‘Wow,’” he said.

The plan took on even more reality when Wayde Elliott walked into the YMCA to introduce himself.

Elliott, a dentist by training, runs StoreIT, a company he founded in 2009 which develops self-storage complexes.

He thought the Statesman Journal building would make an ideal indoor storage facility. He said in an interview that downtown Salem’s climbing number of apartment units plus businesses needing storage made the idea of the project seem feasible. This would be his company’s first Salem project.

But storage units couldn’t be established in the entire building, and Elliott wondered if the YMCA had any needs.

“I went over and introduced myself,” Elliott recalled. “I asked if there was any interest in the building. Tim said, ‘Funny you should ask.’”

Sinatra said he often got asked what would become of the vacant newspaper plant. That’s what set him to thinking about the service center.

From that meeting between businessman and nonprofit executive, the plan unfolded to use part of the building for social service work and other parts for commercial self-storage.

Fariborz Pakseresht, director of the Oregon Department of Human Services, said his agency is ready to participate.

“This Salem center is a great example of how collaboration between partner organizations and ODHS can help serve our communities better,” he said.

Having families and individuals take care of a range of business in one place means “they don’t need to make another appointment at a different office or find childcare,” Pakseresht said by email.

Another supporter is the Willamette Health Council, which oversees the local coordinated care organization.

“We hear time and again the need for a centralized resource hub in the Salem-Keizer area,” said Josie Silverman-Mendez, the council’s deputy director. “This project would meet that need and more.”

Elliott said that with the state’s investment, his company intends to provide below-market rents for social service agencies locating in the project. Sinatra said that could save some nonprofits considerable money and Elliott sees that money going to serve clients, not pay rent.

Elliott said his company would get the building remodeled, providing a shell in part of it for the service center. The state funding would pay for finishing the work on that portion of the building to be used by agencies.

Whether the plan advances hinges on what happens in the coming days at the Capitol.

“We’ll know more here real soon,” he said of the state funding. “It’s a pretty crucial piece for this whole thing to work.”

STORY TIP OR IDEA? Send an email to Salem Reporter’s news team: [email protected].

SUPPORT OUR WORK We depend on subscribers for resources to report on Salem with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Subscribe today to get our daily newsletters and more. Click I want to subscribe!

Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. He co-founded the news organization in 2018. He has been a journalist in Oregon for nearly 50 years in both daily and community newspapers and digital news services. He is nationally recognized for his commitment to local journalism. He also is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.