The sign at The ARCHES Project, a building the city of Salem is said to be considering buying. Buying the property would give the facility hundreds of thousands more dollars to spend on services, like around-the-clock bathrooms (Anthony McGuire/Special to Salem Reporter)

The city of Salem is considering becoming The ARCHES Project’s landlord in a move to bring more services for the homeless downtown.

Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, which oversees ARCHES, confirmed this week he’s been in talks since November to sell to the city the ARCHES’ building at 615 Commercial St. N.E. Jennifer Wheeler, board chair of the organization, confirmed the negotiations.

The move would put the city in charge of a downtown building where more than 100 homeless people visit every day to use bathrooms, find food, get connected with services or just watch television.

Jones said the city is considering leasing the space back to ARCHES at a much lower rate than its current $120,000-per-year mortgage. The organization is also facing a $250,000 balloon payment this year.

“That allows me to spend more money helping people and the city to invest in a solution for homelessness in the downtown core,” Jones said. He said that could mean more staffing and expanded hours.

The potential deal comes as the city explores ways to add around-the-clock access to public bathrooms, showers and storage facilities for homeless in the downtown area, as recommended last summer by the city’s Downtown Homeless Task Force.

READ: The Downtown Homeless Task Force's recommendations.

Jones’ agency and the city are already partnering on a $1.4 million expansion at ARCHES, that would add a kitchen, showers, more storage and a proposed sobering center. Construction awaits approval from the federal government for a $300,000 grant.

Jones said the property deal came up in a meeting with City Manager Steve Powers and Urban Development Director Kristin Retherford in November, about three months after the task force issued its recommendations.

“I was skeptical at first because I wanted to retain control of the building,” he said. “But when I thought about what it would mean to the people of downtown, long-term, this makes more sense than anything else.”

The two city leaders proposed buying the property through the city’s urban renewal fund, Jones said. On Nov. 26, the city Urban Renewal Agency amended its official plans to include as one objective for renewal work “projects to address homelessness.” State law requires major actions by urban renewal agencies to first be added to public plans.

Retherford told Salem Reporter in an email that “property negotiations are confidential. However, the city has not made an offer on this or any other property to support implementation of the homeless task force recommendations.”

“Property acquisition or construction of facilities using urban renewal are feasible options for implementing some of the task force’s recommendations, but any decision in this regard will be worked through the city council’s policy agenda process and the budget process,” she added.

Retherford noted the task force’s recommendations don’t demand that the city buy property, but that doing so would allow a service provider to use money now going to monthly mortgage payments for increased staffing. Urban renewal dollars can't be used for personnel costs.

“The only way we could really help is a situation where urban renewal pays for the property so the partner didn’t have to,” she said.

Retherford didn’t answer questions about how such a plan could affect the sobering center, which has its own budgetary problems.

Pitched as a clinic for drunk and intoxicated people who would otherwise be jailed or taken to the emergency room, the center could cost $950,000 a year to run, according to Bridgeway Recovery Services, which would operate the facility.

That is about $500,000 more than Salem, Marion County and Salem Health have committed to give the center every year. If the city owned the building, that would eliminate $65,000 anticipated in rent payments per year that would have gone to ARCHES.

There is a possibility the state could help pay. Legislation recently introduced in the House would provide state grants for sobering centers. Mayor Chuck Bennett spoke Wednesday in favor of the legislation.

“We are in the process of putting together a sobering center in Salem, we desperately need to get one put together, we’re currently relying on jail and emergency room space to deal with patients who really more appropriately would be treated in this kind of facility,” he told lawmakers. “It represents a better use of our community resources.”

Bennett declined to comment on whether the city is negotiating to buy ARCHES.

Wheeler, the board chair and a former Polk County commissioner, said that although talks are very early she thought the idea of the city buying ARCHES made sense for all sides.

“To me it looks like a win-win because it’s very much needed to have the sobering center,” she said. “I’m very hopeful. You know how slow these things can go. Hopefully at the end of it all it’s going to be a good thing for everybody.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, troy@salemreporter.com or @TroyWB.

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