Happy Thanksgiving

I have a friend who writes an interesting blog about running a small business in Bend.  My friend owns a book, comic, games, and card store in downtown that has survived for more than 27 years.  The blog usually focuses on the challenges of making a small business work and the “Bend Bubble.”  My friend correctly predicted the collapse of the real estate market several years ago by comparing it to the bubble in the sports trading card market in the 1980s.  He’s a smart guy with some great insights about small business.

Interesting blogs attract loyal followers and contributors who sometimes stray beyond the bounds of good taste or good sense.  Several folks who contribute to the Bend blog seem to delight in the current financial crisis and the misery to come.  Some make bold predictions about what will happen in the years ahead, and one recently advised that people should enjoy their turkey this year because there may not be one in 2009.

I rarely make bold predictions anymore.  Yesterday, I paid $1.75 for a gallon of gas that cost more than $4 as recently as September.  I have no idea what I will be paying in January.  I can guess that we will see more business closures and job reductions over the next year, but I also see new investment and job creation both locally and nationally.  I will go out on a limb and say that 99 percent or more of Americans who can afford to purchase a turkey in 2008 will also be able to buy one in 2009.

Unemployment is not an abstract statistic to me, however.  During the early 1980s, I lost jobs and made ends meet by babysitting for a few months.  Managing a city is easy by comparison.  I have a son who recently lost his job as a project manager for a construction company and is having a hard time finding something to support his family.  Despite my concern for him, I know that unemployment can help people make positive changes in their lives.  Unemployment motivated me to go to graduate school, where I received the training to become a city manager.  The financial security I enjoy today can be traced to the decisions I made while I was unemployed.  I’m sure I would not have recognized at the time the educational value of changing dirty diapers.

I wish everyone who reads this blog a very Happy Thanksgiving.  Since my record at predicting the future is so poor, I won’t offer any assurances of good times to come.  I believe that our obligation to ourselves  and those around us is to make the best of whatever challenges we may face and turn them into opportunities.

Blue Gatorade

The last time I drank any Gatorade I was struggling up Mt. Rainier with a full pack and an empty reservoir of energy.  I was hoping the Gatorade might help me rehydrate and allow me to reach the summit.  Unfortunately, I was hit with terrible cramps and never got close to the top of the mountain.  It would be wrong for me to blame my failure on Gatorade, but today I can confess that I have never liked the stuff very much.

I don’t mean to make light of Gatorade’s decision not to build a new plant in Albany.  The proposed plant would have been a great asset to the community at a time when good jobs are going to be at a premium.  Despite my disappointment, I am also sympathetic to the people we have worked with on the Gatorade project.  I believe Pepsico officials negotiated in good faith and had every intention of building the facility.  Very few people, including me, predicted the current state of the economy; so I find it hard to be critical of others who were similarly unenlightened.  I am also encouraged that the company, in announcing their decision, also committed to honoring the terms of their agreement with the City of Albany, Linn County, and the state of Oregon.   Pepsico’s commitment means that while we will not enjoy the benefits of a major manufacturing plant, we will receive fair compensation for our involvement with the project.

Pepsico officials have acknowledged that the city, county, and state have lived up to all of our contractual obligations and that the company is prepared to do likewise.  We have not agreed on an exact number at this time, but there appears to be agreement on a base figure that will be of great benefit to the community.  Our City Attorney, Jim Delapoer, did an excellent job of helping to protect the community’s interests in this project.  I think the City Council and County Commission should also be commended for their determination to honor the terms of the contract, even in the face of some vocal opposition.  If the community had retreated from its commitments, we would not be in a position to receive compensation today.  The great work of Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, Mark Shepard, Stewart Taylor, Helen Burns Sharp, John Pascone, and Dick Ebbert should also be acknowledged.

Albany will not be alone in facing difficult economic news.  Hewlett-Packard in Corvallis has already announced significant layoffs, and Eugene has experienced a major plant closure in recent months.  The Gatorade payment will give the Council an opportunity to consider options that could protect city residents from service reductions and/or complete needed facility and infrastructure projects.  Very few cities will have this luxury in months ahead.

I have never been much of a Gatorade consumer, although my son often buys it by the case.  I won’t discourage him from buying it in the future.  He seems to like blue Gatorade the best; and given my feelings today, that seems entirely appropriate.

Wondering about Wal-Mart

Earlier this week, the City Council approved a site plan for a new shopping center in East Albany.  This development proposal came to the City about a year ago and has gone through many changes since it first arrived.  Building location, traffic patterns, off-site improvements, and landscaping have all been adjusted to conform to city and state standards.  The process, from the developer’s perspective, has not been easy or quick.

Albany’s Development Code does not require a property owner to reveal who the user of a building will be after it is constructed.  The City regulates land uses but does not have the authority to exclude businesses by name.  Some communities have limited the size of commercial buildings which effectively keeps out companies that only locate in extremely large structures.  Albany’s City Council, like the overwhelming majority in the U.S., made a decision some years ago not to do this.

The Council heard testimony from a small number of citizens about the development in East Albany, with some speaking in favor of the project and several in opposition.  A few, but not all, who opposed the shopping center were concerned about the possibility of a Wal-Mart in Albany.  While the City Council can deny approval for reasons such as traffic congestion or infrastructure capacity, they cannot deny a proposal because they think the anchor tenant will be a Wal-Mart.  The argument about whether Wal-Mart is a force for good or evil in the world cannot be considered in a quasi-judicial land use proceeding if the local decision is expected to be upheld on appeal.

Recently, a developer met with staff about another proposed development.  Near the conclusion of the meeting, the developer said something to the effect that it was good to know that staff would be an advocate for the project.  I assured him that staff would not be an advocate.  Our role is to make as objective a determination as possible as to whether the project conforms to the requirements of the Development Code.  If it does, staff is obligated to recommend approval; and if it does not, we will recommend denial.  The large policy questions about whether development in general is good or bad need to be made by elected officials in close consultation with the community.  Unfortunately, when elected officials hold hearings to consider broad changes in the Development Code, very few people choose to attend.  People understand and relate to immediate development plans in their neighborhood.  Most of us have a more difficult time getting excited about zoning designations that may not occur on the ground for many years.

I do not know if the new development in East Albany will include a Wal-Mart, but there’s a good possibility that it will.  I do know that the development will meet the requirements of the Albany Development Code and the Oregon Department of Transportation.  If Albany residents feel that the Code is too permissive, or too restrictive for that matter, then that message needs to be delivered to the City Council for their consideration.