Albany’s plan to increase the width of sidewalks and add some landscaping on Broadalbin Street is competing with the renovation of the old train station for the title of biggest waste of taxpayer dollars among people in the community who are angry with city government. It’s reasonable to wonder why the City would consider spending money on a streetscape project when resources are tight and there are so many other community needs.
The short answer is the City is not spending money on this project. Albany’s promenade is being financed by the Central Albany Revitalization Area (CARA), a separate urban renewal agency which receives its funding from property owners within the CARA district. While all city property owners see an urban renewal line item on their tax bill, they would see no reduction in their taxes if the district did not exist. Oregon’s property tax system is complex, and urban renewal districts make it more so. I believe it is fair to say, however, that communities with urban renewal districts receive more money for public purposes than places that do not have districts. More bluntly, Albany and Lebanon, with urban renewal districts, are subsidized by people around the state who live in areas without districts.
Urban renewal does not provide money for any purpose an agency might choose. State laws limit the use of this money to projects that help eliminate blight or stimulate economic activity. Urban renewal money, invested wisely, creates opportunities for new investment that would otherwise not have occurred. Many of the buildings in the downtown area that have been built in recent years, for example, would not be there if they had not received urban renewal assistance. These projects add new properties to the tax rolls that help cover the costs of new improvements and, in the long-term, public services.
The “promenade” is a project that helps a successful new business on the corner of Broadalbin and First Avenue, while also improving the appearance of the street. The project has already helped stimulate private investment and is likely to attract more in the future. Rundown, unappealing areas drive investment away, while attractive, well-kept commercial districts bring in new money. The new Wheelhouse Building on Water Avenue, along with the construction jobs that created it and the property taxes it will generate into the future, would not have been possible without the investor’s belief that urban renewal resources will be used to make the downtown more attractive.
I think everyone understands that communities need to invest in themselves to flourish over time. Albany’s urban renewal agency is a tool to increase investment and make the town more prosperous. Projects have ranged from large commercial structures to historic home renovation, in addition to streetscape improvements and a senior housing facility. Taxpayers have received a good return on their investment to date.