When the Newport City Council sat down to talk with the public and County Commissioner Claire Hall and other County Commons supporters Monday night there was a lot of talk back and forth about what a rejuvenated County Fairgrounds and new Convention Center might look like, and who would pay for what part of it.
The county owns the fairgrounds land and its mostly dilapidated buildings. The county wants to knock most of it down and build a new multi-purpose convention center with livestock event capabilities. Total sticker price at around $10 million. Others say it’ll be higher than that.
So the county is turning to the Newport City Council in hopes the city will offer up some city urban renewal funds to make the new facility as spacious and multi-purposeful as it can be.
But some city councilors are reluctant to pay for any part of the building because, they claim, urban renewal funds generally go for installing new streets, curbs, sidewalks, sewers, water, storm water systems, parks and other amenities that makes an otherwise run down area look very attractive for new homes, industry, businesses and other kinds of developments.
When the city began to get cold feet on the county’s request that the city help pay for the convention center, the county backed off saying “Okay we’ll build a smaller building.” But, of course, that raised eyebrows among those who suspect a smaller building would produce lower revenues – and that a project already destined to lose money would be losing even more.
Public testimony continued to be quite predictable – those who want to preserve the area’s agricultural history, 4-H and Cooperative Extension programs, while others contend that the old fairgrounds is perfect for Newport’s greatest need – affordable housing – along with that a transit station and a possible emergency services center that could be activated in the event of “The Big One” – The Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake and Tsunami which is due to happen any time.
In the end, everybody agreed that the project is still mostly pie-in-the-sky at this point and that the exact size of the Commons, it’s array of activities and costs are still largely unknown although everyone agrees it’ll cost a lot of money. City Councilors, on a 3 to 2 vote, decided to continue communicating with the county and perhaps a year from now both sides will have a clearer picture of what’s truly possible.
The silent elephant in the room was Newport’s city-wide rapidly deteriorating underground utilities – sewer, water and storm drainage. The city has been plagued with lots of failing pipes. The Oregon Coast is sometimes referred to as a beach-front mud glacier that is always moving and is therefore a constant cause of broken sewer and water mains that must be repaired/replaced immediately. And they’re not cheap to fix. To consider partnering with the county on an admittedly money-losing “Commons” project could put an even greater strain on the city’s overall budget.
Meanwhile,the city wants to rejuvenate Newport’s “downtown” area to make it more enticing for tourists. There is even talk of a two way couplet to ease downtown traffic congestion – especially in the summer. That too will be pricey but it is a classic example of why urban renewal exists in the first place – to allow aging cities to “bootstrap” themselves to become a growing and thriving community.
City Councilors were split on how to proceed on a possible partnership with the county – Councilors Engler and Allen wanting to take a more cautious approach – Councilor Allen saying the city should consider partnering with the county only on the underground utilities at The Commons – not on the convention center building itself. County Counsel Wayne Belmont has already said the county can build the convention center without financial help from the city. So, for the moment, negotiations continue between the city and the county and they’ll likely continue over the next 9 months to a year.
Urban Renewal Commission Chair Dean Sawyer then adjourned their roles as urban renewal commissioners and then gavelled them back up as City Councilors who then proceeded to handle lower risk, if not more run-of-the-mill city business.
Resident Betty Kamikawa, among others, told the council that along the Central Coast, water quality is in decline due in part to excessive logging which produces rising river and creek temperatures. She also decried the use of even back-pack herbicide treatment of what’s left after a clear cut. She said there is a movement to hold timber companies more accountable for what they do to America’s forests and to the American people when exposed to hazardous chemicals. She said it’s acute along the Siletz River which is the main provider of water for Seal Rock, Newport and Siletz.
The council also learned that the Siletz River has, for years, been exposed to treated sewer plant sludge. This sludge, when dried in open fields along the river, provides nutrients for a lot of crops. But also, what many fear is the contamination of Siletz Valley farmlands. There has been a lot of talk about this issue over the years but according to environmentalists, it’s starting to come to a head. Stay tuned.