City officials ask residents to help set priorities for the next five years
By Terri Harber
email@example.com It's not every day when government officials invite residents to explain what they'd like to see done for their community during the next five years.
But that's what happened Wednesday at Baker City Hall.
Stan Foster, a facilitator, listened and, occasionally, provided direction to people as they presented their ideas.
Ann Mehaffy, a real estate broker who used to be a director of Historic Baker City, Inc., suggested the city form an urban renewal district.
Broadway to 10th Street would be a good area to consider, Mehaffy said.
There are many unoccupied buildings in that area, she said.
"When people understand the concept the urban renewal ... it's not what they think it is," Mehaffy said. "There's an education process."
"La Grande has large amounts of money" for improvement projects because it has an urban renewal district, she said.
(Note: An example of such funding occurred this summer in La Grande. Ten projects were given awards ranging from $3,000 to $75,000 to, among other things, help create or retain jobs and repurpose buildings, according to The Observer newspaper in La Grande).
"Urban renewal is a pretty common tool," Foster said.
Mehaffy also suggested a single person be appointed as the central event coordinator for the city.
This would be a different responsibility than that of Timothy Bishop, Baker County's contracted tourism director.
Walt Wegener, superintendent of the Baker 5J School District, pointed to the Central Building at Fifth Street and Washington Avenue as an example of a building with repurposing potential. However, efforts to sell it have been unsuccessful since the 96-year-old structure was closed by the district in 2009.
Relationships among local officials and residents was another topic during Wednesday's meeting.
"Why can't we all get along?" asked Ginger Savage, executive director of Crossroads Carnegie Art Center.
The community and its leaders need to "get together for the common good," she said.
Savage would like to see more community members receive leadership training offered by the Ford Institute Leadership Program.
Emerging leaders might be focused exclusively on the parks, the airport board or some other targeted interest instead of a variety of issues. And that could be a good thing for the city and its residents, Savage said.
The leaders don't "have to be city councilors," she said.
Finding future community leaders seems difficult these days, especially because people don't involve themselves with volunteer efforts as frequently as they once did.
"Our leaders are dying off. People used to volunteer. It was normal," Savage said.
Mehaffy and Savage also talked about how important they believe it is to build a sense of community.
"We're losing our connectedness in a profound way," Mehaffy said. "We need one central core group. ... Facebook is not a demographic."
Wegener wants to see more attention paid to preserving the community's quality of life.
There are a lot of places for families to have fun and expend some excess energy --- especially for a community this size -- such as the YMCA, bowling alley, sports complex, Anthony Lakes Ski Area and Quail Ridge Golf Course.
The city needs to ensure the municipal golf course is "sustainable," Wegener said.
He and Anthony Johnson, the school district's curriculum director/federal programs, both believe the city should highlight these attractions more frequently.
And, "we have a tremendously rich history," Johnson said.
Johnson said the community's seniors need to be invited to participate in events and activities -- even planning them -- as much as younger adults.
Savage also mentioned two other attributes: good restaurants and a thriving arts community.
All are things that could help the local economy. The city should be trying to attract more artists to live and work here, for example, Savage said.
This would be in addition to more traditional incentives and tax breaks that should be offered to those who want to do business in Baker City, Savage and others said.
Marshall McComb of Baker City would like to see city officials address local poverty. There are a lot of local children who receive low-cost or free meals at school, he pointed out.
The high rate of poverty is because job opportunities are limited for young people trying to earn enough to properly provide for families -- a condition city officials need to help improve, Johnson and McComb both said.
McComb also would like to see the councilors "support or oppose national issues," and cited last year's support for efforts to keep corporate money out of politics as an example of something locally pertinent.
Other areas of interest included bolstering the ability for everyone to get around the city, improving education, making young people feel they are part of the community as a whole and, said Johnson, "embracing change."
"We need to beat the drum about what's going right," Savage said.
Among the complaints residents cited Wednesday are the need to fix local sidewalks and reduce the frequency of loud train whistles heard throughout the city.
Only a small number of people attended each session. This is why city officials hope more people will take time to fill out the online survey at bakercity.com If you want to have your thoughts known in time for the Baker City Council's Dec. 10 goal-setting work session, complete the online survey no later than Dec. 9.