St. Helens Mayor Rick Scholl and challenger Al Petersen kicked off a debate forum hosted by The Chronicle this past week. Following the mayoral segment, the candidates for St. Helens City Council took the stage.
Chronicle reporter Morris Malakoff served as moderator for the debate forum. It was held on Oct. 23 at Columbia River Receptions & Events at Meriwether Place. Questions prepared by the Chronicle news staff were drawn at random by audience members and candidates were given two minutes to respond.
In his opening remarks, Petersen highlighted his fifth-generation family history in Columbia County and growing up logging and working in his father’s rock quarry. He went on to study at University of Oregon and University of Houston, graduating with an architecture degree and meeting his wife. After living abroad for a time, the couple returned to St. Helens in 2005 and opened an architecture firm.
Petersen said on his return, he was surprised to see numerous vacant storefronts. Lost lumber and mill jobs added to the local downturn he was observing, which led him to get involved with city government and community events. Petersen said his goal is to revive the city by attracting jobs and industry.
In Scholl’s introduction he joked about the timeliness of the event, which coincided with the opening game of the baseball World Series. A third-generation local resident, he emphasized the natural beauty and benefits of life along the Columbia River. Scholl said the past two years as mayor were very much a learning experience for him.
Piggybacking on Petersen’s comments about industrial losses in the county, Scholl ticked off a list of companies that have packed up and left town. He said the problem was statewide, and placed doubts on the notion some cities hold that cross-laminated timber will return the timber industry to its former glory. He cited plans to sell city-held industrial property and invest the return for future development.
The first question of the night asked the candidates what specific cost-cutting measure they might take if the economy dipped during their term.
Scholl responded that the city was keeping staffing levels at the right size for the current economy despite some growth expectations. He said cutting policing would be the last resort, and that cuts from parks budgets, though common, have led to a need for infrastructure upgrades.
“You look at every possible budget cut you can do in that crisis,” Scholl said. He added that the City collects among the second lowest property tax rates in the county, citing a significant disparity in what is collected in Scappoose by comparison.
Petersen called attention to a recent transfer of City tax funds to a tourism budget and questioned why that was done. He added that the City recently raised its hotel tax to one of the highest rates in Oregon, he supposed for the reason of shoring up the tourism budget.
Having previously testified to the City Council regarding the value of tourism, Petersen said he urged city officials to host more events to draw visitors. However, he raised concerns about what he described as excessive spending towards tourism.
Next the candidates were asked what contingency plans each had in the event a $15 million waterfront revitalization project to be fueled by a federal transportation grant should fail to materialize. Without the $15 million grant, Petersen expects the development to take much longer, though urban renewal dollars would provide some support.
Petersen said the incoming tax revenue for the City was not enough to drive development, suggesting that the City should take a piecemeal approach to the overall revitalization, breaking it down to the fundable steps to keep forward momentum.
Saying that the project was not dependent on the grant, Scholl said if it should come through it would be great, but if not, the waterfront development would proceed as the budget and urban renewal would allow.
Malakoff then asked how the mayoral hopefuls planned to address housing costs and growth as both increase, with the county potentially doubling in size by 2030.
Having met with other mayors on the topic, Scholl said the lack of affordability was clear in comparing the cost of land against developing it. He said cities of similar size are looking at state dollars and tax breaks to create developing and housing solutions. Scholl said the market could not be controlled, calling it a scheme of sorts.
Four months into testimonies in favor of loosening housing regulations on auxiliary dwelling units, Petersen said there is room on land in the county for citizens to build affordable housing if regulations were relaxed, but within city limits there is far less space to work with. He said city officials are limited in what they could do in part because of residents who oppose growth.
“If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about St. Helens city government, what would it be,” Malakoff asked next.
For Petersen, his wish was for the City and nonprofit volunteer organizations such as the St. Helens Economic Development Corporation (SHEDCO) and the Chamber of Commerce to be more cohesive and cooperative for the benefit of main street business owners and future prospects.
“That’s my magic wand, to get the city government and these various nonprofits that promote business in our town to work together better,” Petersen said.
Countering that his administration does try to work with local nonprofits, Scholl said government is a slow process with good and bad effects from that slowness. He detailed the steps necessary to meet certain procedural requirements, saying it was hard for him to adjust to the constraints of government as he sees good ideas from good people delayed by the processes.
The progress made by the Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center (OMIC) and Portland Community College (PCC) in Scappoose was the focus of the following question, which reflected on public commentary about the choice of Scappoose over St. Helens for so many prominent projects.
Scholl said it was “about damn time” for PCC to put a school in the county after years of paying taxes in return for a tiny program hosted out of a high school. He said OMIC was a great project that would stimulate the whole county and applauded the efforts of State Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) and Gov. Kate Brown (D) in funding the project to the tune of $30 million in state dollars.
Petersen said the City should partner with the Port of Columbia County and the Columbia County Economic Development Team and focus on pulling industry from Scappoose to St. Helens, noting hundreds of acres open at the Boise-Cascade property. Petersen disagreed with the recent lease of City acreage to a marijuana grower, saying those jobs would not hold up in the long run, preferring manufacturing and industrial employment opportunities.
Expanding the urban growth boundary was questioned. Petersen said the city has a large urban growth area by comparison in the county. However, citing a transportation department refusal for a stop sign at a dangerous intersection on the highway, he called for limited expansion of the boundary for traffic safety purposes.
Scholl agreed with the need for a limited expansion to cover the dangerous intersection at Bennet Road mentioned by Petersen.
The candidates next laid out their plans for office if elected, and whether they would pursue civic activities if they lost the race. Scholl pledged to remain active regardless of outcome. He plans to push economic development and waterfront revitalization, adding hopes for a storefront restoration project through urban renewal. Scholl also called for a youth recreation program between the City and the school district. He also said his administration had increased policing.
Petersen also would remain involved, having served for a decade already in community organizations. He would build on SHEDCO’s success in supporting small businesses and plans to continue his attending of numerous agency meetings in the county as well. In office, he would stress the adoption of business-friendly policies such as reducing system development charges, building fees that could limit new or expanding businesses.
Full remarks from the forum in the videos below