By Leslie Pugmire Hole
REDMOND — Heather Richards knows main streets.
As a downtown manager in Baker City during its 1990s renaissance, she became well-acquainted with the benefits and challenges of owning and patronizing a small business in a city’s historic town core. As a planner and community development director for the city of Redmond, that knowledge has deepened.
But now it’s time for a change. The city plans to fill a city planner position with a veteran urban renewal professional and is in the midst of an investigation of whether to participate in Oregon Main Street, a state revitalization program that works with communities to recapture business interest and vitality in downtown areas.
“I’m stepping back from urban renewal duties because things are heating up in community development and I’m needed there,” Richards told Redmond’s Downtown Urban Renewal Advisory Commission during a recent meeting, explaining why the city intends to fill an open city planner position with someone who has deep urban renewal knowledge. “What I see coming down the pike in the next five years are more public-private partnerships, and they’ll need coordination.”
The next phase of urban renewal is the implementation of programs and projects only talked about or just begun. For the city, that will mean a staff member with deep knowledge of real estate, project management and experience working with the business sector, Richards said. A recently vacated position that already focused on economic development and urban renewal provided the perfect opportunity to tweak the job description with recent needs in mind.
Sam Blackwell, DURAC member, asked Richards if the reworked job description was written with someone specific in mind. Richards said no, but she’s aware of several good project managers out there.
“I advocated for more dollars for this position, to aim for a real heavy hitter with the skill sets we need,” she said.
This newly defined position is key to Redmond as the economy improves and more development opportunities arise, Redmond City Manager Keith Witcosky said.
“People aren’t lining up at the door asking us to take their money,” he said. “It takes a lot of horsepower to convince people to invest and partner with government, and we need someone who can help property owners understand the framework of redevelopment and their role in that — to make them feel comfortable.”
Finding someone to take lead on downtown development has been a longtime challenge for Redmond. From 2006 to 2008, the city contracted with the now-defunct Redmond Downtown Partnership to pay for a manager who would help make downtown a more viable and successful place. The contract was canceled when the recession hit.
“There was no state Main Street program when RDP existed, but they’ve proven very successful for many communities. But RDP’s only funding source was the city — when an organization has only one funding source and loses it, they can’t continue,” Richards said.
Since 2009, efforts to revitalize and market downtown have fallen to a loosely organized merchants’ group and overworked staff at city hall.
According to Richards, there has been discussion about whether the city might use urban renewal dollars to return to assisting with a dedicated downtown manager for a short time. Expecting small-business owners to take on the tasks involved — promotions, research, communication with existing or potential business, parking — is too much, she added.
“It’s a lot of work, trying to run your business and do all these other jobs on a volunteer basis. They get burned out,” Richards said. And while some communities eventually create a business district to support downtown management, few do it straight out of the box.
“Typically, they have a funding source to get underway and build enough success to show value in a (Business Improvement District),” she said. Only after seeing benefits do businesses typically agree to tax themselves.
Paulina Springs bookstore co-owner Cynthia Claridge, who served on the board of RDP and volunteers with the current merchants group, agrees that downtown isn’t ready to accept the idea of a Business Improvement District — but it would gladly accept help getting to that point.
“The six or so of us that do everything are floundering,” she said. “If we didn’t have the chamber to support us, we would have given up and walked away.” A dedicated downtown manager, if it were the right person, might be just the kickstarter to something bigger, she said.
“My goodness, could there really be light at the end of the tunnel?” Claridge said with a laugh.
The current city budget has allotted $10,000 for Oregon Main Street consultants to help the city evaluate Redmond’s current downtown needs and capabilities.
Nearly half the incorporated cities in Oregon are enrolled in the Oregon Main Street Network, including nearly all cities close in size to Redmond.
“We still need to determine if (the Main Street program is) a good match for Redmond,” Richards said. Urban renewal funds for a downtown manager, she said, is another conversation.
— Reporter: 541-548-2186, firstname.lastname@example.org