Editor’s Note: This is the first of two stories regarding Tuesday’s candidate’s night in The Dalles and features local candidates weighing in on issues. Tomorrow the Chronicle will focus on contenders for state and federal offices.
Candidates for mayor and city council came together Tuesday in The Dalles for a discussion of issues that was civil but filled with disparate opinions.
Questions asked of three contestants for mayor, two for the at-large council position and two for council Position Two ranged from economic development, beautification along Interstate 84 and housing to the city paying for community concerts, among others.
The forum was sponsored by The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce and held in the high school auditorium. Moderators for the evening were radio personalities Rodger Nichols and Mark Bailey.
Clay Johnson and Darcy Long-Curtiss were first to take their place at the microphone. Both are vying for the open seat on Position Two with Dana Journey, who was not present.
After introducing themselves, the pair were asked to give their view of the city underwriting two summer concerts.
In June, the city gave promoters Randy Haines and Nolan Hare a green light to organize a Summer Celebration concert series fronted with up to $96,500 in public funds.
Although three concerts were planned, the final one set for September featuring local talent was cancelled when the first two brought in less revenue from ticket sales than expected.
After Haines and Hare chipped in some of the money they earned from vendors and sponsorships, the city’s loss from weak ticket sales was about $16,500.
Johnson said he felt the city had a track record of using taxpayer dollars wisely but he was unprepared to comment further on the issue until he had undertaken an in-depth study of the budget.
“I think we need to be conservative as to where funds should go and how they are used,” he said.
Long-Curtiss said she felt there were too many needs for city officials to spend that much money on entertainment.
“Although it did bring in some tourism, I don’t know that we can justify the return on investment,” she said.
Taner Elliott, incumbent for the at-large position, defended the city’s decision to spend taxpayer dollars on the concerts. He said that, initially, he didn’t support the idea but he had changed his mind because drawing visitors into town was beneficial for area businesses.
He said Pendleton, Sweet Home and other towns had devoted capital to concerts so there was precedent for the city’s decision. “If we are going to bring that positive energy together that we’re so close to attaining, you have to have an open mind,” he said.
His challenger, Andretta Schellinger, did not support the level of the city’s investment into a private enterprise. She said a Christmas party was being planned at Sororis Park by community members and she felt that type of grassroots effort was an example of how activities could be put together without public funds.
“We need to go back to that — we need from the ground up,” she said.
Opinions from the three mayoral candidates on the issue of concerts were also varied.
Lawrence described the concerts as a “fantastic” investment and said, “I’ll do that every day.”
“I think this was one way to develop tourism and I think it was a great way,” he said.
Susan Barr Harris said she felt more community members should have had more input into the expenditure, which fell outside the regular budget cycle.
She said it was difficult to identify the benefits of entertainment. She said the loss was more difficult to reconcile given that the city had turned down a request to fund an office manager position for the Wasco County Veterans Service Office for $90,000 each year for five years.
“The vets should have received more money, that would have been a better balance,” said Harris.
Solea Kabakov said: “This is so clearly a community decision. We need to come together with all of the info and decide if that’s the best use of money.”
The three candidates also approached the questions about what they thought the role of the mayor should be from different angles.
Lawrence said the mayor was a spokesperson for the city and worked with the city council to build partnerships that brought people together for the betterment of the community.
He said the mayor also had to make sure policies were followed and negotiate deals with companies such as Google to spur economic development.
Harris said the mayor’s role was, first and foremost, to be a leader and facilitator. She said openness and transparency were essential to fulfill those roles. By disseminating information and encouraging a community discussion, she said the mayor helps lay the foundation for job creation.
Kabakov said the primary duty of the mayor was to empower citizens by creating an environment of inclusiveness that was fed by open communication.
All seven city candidates were asked how they would deal with Oregon Cherry Growers and AmeriTies to make the viewscape from Interstate 84 more attractive to visitors.
Long-Curtiss agreed that aeration ponds outside the cherry processing plant on First Street needed to be screened from passing motorists.
She said new data on the emissions from AmeriTies was expected to be released soon by the state and that would determine the next course of action involving the plant.
“I think there is still a lot of work to be done,” she said of both projects.
Johnson agreed but said he wanted to see operations at both places kept viable to protect jobs.
“We have to do a lot of listening and do what’s right by state and city codes,” he said.
Elliott said the city had spent money at its First Street wastewater treatment plant to better shield the view from the freeway and landscaping efforts continued. He felt the same process could be used in other visible locations.
“It’s definitely a topic that should be discussed,” he said.
Schellinger said the cherry industry was a vital part of the town’s history and one of its economic engines. She said, to a certain extent, people had to learn to live with the smell and sight of the ponds.
“It’s not pretty but it’s part of The Dalles heritage,” she said.
Lawrence said a tall fence would help at the Cherry Growers location, at least at the street level, but he was unsure what could be done to block the view of AmeriTies, which was located within an industrial zone.
Kabakov said there were ways to fix unsightly views but the situation at AmeriTies was deeper because the operation, which uses creosote to treat railroad ties, posed a “health hazard.”“I don’t believe a place like that should be near a population center,” she said.
Harris said she had never minded the smell and look of the ponds at Cherry Growers and was confident the company was doing everything it could to address concerns.
She said the issues raised by citizens about AmeriTies, including that emissions caused headaches and other health problems, were worrisome. She felt that city officials needed to make sure that compliance and safety standards were being followed.
All of the candidates saw the lack of affordable and attainable housing in The Dalles as a crisis that needed to be addressed through partnerships and collaboration.
The candidates shared their vision for promoting economic growth from different angles.
Long-Curtiss felt The Dalles needed to take a “long look” at where the town should be in decades to come, which would drive policy decisions.
“I think we need to come up with a plan as a community,” she said.
Johnson said the council had already made huge strides in that area that he wanted to continue, with a special emphasis upon filling empty storefronts downtown.
“I want to continue retaining and attracting new people to The Dalles,” he said.
Schellinger said she has researched the rich history of The Dalles and believed it was important to retain the character of the town during rehabilitation efforts downtown.
“The Granada is an amazing building and I would like to see it back to its amazing glory,” she said. She felt preservation of the historic theater in some type of project that brought life back to the blighted block would serve as an “anchor” to draw other businesses.
Elliott said the city had invested almost $2 million into the Granada block and tied up revitalization for more than a decade in an attempt to work with one developer.
He said negotiations were underway with another developer that he felt optimistic about.
“I think in the next two years we’re going to see positives happen,” he said.
Kabakov believes The Dalles Main Street has played a vital role in filling empty spaces downtown. She said development of the Granada block was an important part of restoring vitality to the business corridor on Second Street.
“I don’t have any special ideas but I’d like to see a real open discussion with a lot of new ideas on the table,” she said. “I think that’s how we move forward.”
Lawrence said a 50-unit apartment complex was in the works at Federal and Second streets and the city has a tax incentive for downtown property owners who establish housing in the vacant upper floors of buildings.
He said Main Street, partially funded by the city, had won an award for its work to promote downtown and help breweries and other new businesses set up shop. He said many other plans were in various stages of being fulfilled to benefit the economy.
“The vision for downtown is to try and bring it to life,” he said.
Harris described the downtown blocks with empty storefronts as a “hot mess and, unfortunately, it’s our city’s hot mess.”
She said the mayor and council members needed to work more proactively with developers to turn things around.
“We need to encourage investors to bring jobs to our community,” she said.
In a closing statement, Harris said she was a downtown business and property owner and managed real estate in several states, which gave her experience to help turn things around.
“I am very familiar with development property and loss and risk management,” she said. “I believe we are so prime for growth and prosperity. The Dalles is ready for change and I’d like to be that change.”
Kabakov said she would help bring different factions of the community together to decide “exactly what we want the town to be.”
“We can move forward in a way that benefits the many and not the few,” she said.
Lawrence said he and the council had restructured the local government to be more accountable to citizens.
“The budget process has improved and we’ve stopped unnecessary rate hikes,” he said.
Lawrence said he wanted to carry that forward momentum into a third term in office.
Johnson said in closing that he wanted to be the voice for the younger generation. He was unafraid of tackling a steep learning curve about how government operated and excited about public service.
“I’ll continue to focus on what’s gone on that I think is amazingly positive,” he said.
Long-Curtiss said she had grown up in The Dalles, so had a good understanding of the town’s need. She believed her diverse background of service with government agencies and civic organizations would be beneficial to the council.
She said it was important the city grow in a way that would allow its graduates to return after college or trade school and get a good-paying job. “I’m hoping that my sons will come back and raise their families here as well,” she said.
Schellinger said it was important to not only take care of citizens but the homeless, particularly veterans, who were in the community.
“Oregon is tied for the highest homeless population of veterans in the nation,” she said. “I find that unacceptable. It is my goal to make sure that vets are housed.”
Elliott said he was a native of The Dalles who was committed to improving the quality of life for residents.
“We need to keep a positive attitude to move forward with all our partnerships, with the public and intragovernmental agreements,” he said.
Also speaking at the Oct. 25 forum were four candidates unopposed for their respective offices: Linda Miller, who serves in Position 4 on the city council; Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill; Wasco County Clerk Lisa Gambee; and Roger Howe, seeking the Northern Wasco County PUD Subdivision #1 seat.