The decision to scrap the Economic Improvement District has many wondering what the future holds for La Grande’s downtown
After more than a year of planning to establish an Economic Improvement District, La Grande Main Street’s attempt to gain stable funding came to a halt last week leaving Main Street members wondering what the next step is for the program.
City councilors voted Wednesday based on letters of objection to end the effort to create the district.
“I feel like we’re at a crossroads,” said La Grande Main Street President John Howard.
La Grande was accepted into the Main Street program in September 2008, just after Oregon reinstated the program. Since then, the program has received city financial support as well as funding through a Resource Assistance for Rural Environments grant.
La Grande Main Street has had four RARE coordinators, but that funding will not last forever and does not provide continuity for the program.
“This year or next, that might be the end of (RARE funding),” Howard said.
The proposed Economic Improvement District was intended to collect assessments from property owners within the downtown district to help fund Main Street, with a primary goal to staff one full-time position. In the final ordinance, the assessment was to total $36,000 a year.
Howard said in meetings last fall, property and business owners raised concerns about the unfair burden on businesses not on Adams Avenue. Taking a cue from Baker City, the EID was restructured to create a tiered assessment system. In Tier 1, the downtown core, assessments were $2 per every $1,000 in real market value assessed, with a maximum assessment of $350 and a minimum of $100 per parcel. In Tier 2, the greater downtown area, assessments were $1.75 per every $1,000 in real market value assessed, with a maximum assessment of $175 and a minimum of $100 per parcel. In Tier 3, light industrial, assessments were $100 per parcel in the proposed ordinance.
The ordinance provided that the district would not be created if 33 percent of the total assessment were represented by letters of objection. City Manager Robert Strope said at Wednesday’s meeting that the city had received letters totaling 41.9 percent of the assessment.
At the meeting, Howard made it clear that he was not interested in fighting or creating a further divide in the city.
“If you go down that road you start burning bridges,” he said later. “I respect their right to remonstrate.”
Still, Howard said he is disappointed and is not sure what’s next for the organization.
“I’m not really optimistic at this point,” he said. Main Street will have a meeting Wednesday to make decisions on how to proceed.
Program coordinator Alana Garner is taking a more positive approach to Wednesday’s events.
“I still believe in the program,” she said. “I’m still positive we can overcome this.”
Garner said Main Street has gained momentum in the 21 months she has been in La Grande through the RARE program. She was here when Main Street moved into its own office and said she has seen growth in the city and in relationships downtown. She noted that downtown had two ribbon cuttings Friday.
“That’s movement,” she said.
Garner said it’s possible that of that 41.9 percent, many support Main Street but not the EID. She also looks to those who did not submit letters as hope.
“There’s 60 percent of people by assessed value who do support the program,” she said.
Garner and Howard both said they are interested in discussing why those who remonstrated did so. For opponents of the EID, now is a good time for Main Street to be re-evaluated.
“For Main Street, I’d say you need to take a couple steps back,” said Mt. Emily Ale House owner Jerry Grant. “If they want to build excitement and a majority, they need to reach out. They need to do the leg work.”
Grant said from his experience, he does not think Main Street did enough to build relationships with businesses.
“We’re supposed to be neighbors helping neighbors. And it hasn’t felt like that,” he said.
Instead, Grant said there seems to almost be a “clique” of businesses that get preferential treatment.
“They need to embrace their enemies if this is going to work,” he said.
Other opponents, like local attorney Steve Joseph, are opposed to the EID on more philosophical grounds.
“If it is an assessment to a property owner based on property value and you are able to lien the property … it’s a tax,” Joseph said.
For Joseph, Main Street and the creation of a new assessment district is just adding another layer of government bureaucracy.
“They do good things, I am sure, but I’m not sure Big Brother should be involved,” he said.
In that sense, Joseph sees the EID as a slippery slope of government intrusion.
“To force someone to pay for the economic development of others, that’s the very definition of socialism,” Joseph said.
Joseph also had problems with the way Main Street went about the EID and the equity of assessments, though he said he would not consider himself a spearhead of efforts to shut it down.
“I would call it a collaboration of interested parties,” he said.
Joseph said the group of opponents is convinced that if the council had opted to wait another 30 days to see if more property owners would submit or withdraw letters of objection, that the rate of remonstrance would have been more than 50 percent.
Despite the setbacks, Strope said the city still provides $25,000 in funding to help pay the RARE coordinator, which has been approved for another year. But come Aug. 1, Garner will no longer be that person, because she must be rotated out.
“The continuity and relationship building that occurs, they’re back to square one in that respect,” Strope said. “I don’t know how much of a setback (the EID failure) is going to be in terms of Main Street becoming a self-sufficient organization.”