Downtown Eugene’s Hidden Subsidy

Published Friday, Sept. 14, 2007 in The Register-Guard.

The West Broadway Advisory Committee will report to the Eugene City Council on Wednesday. Negotiations will then proceed with KWG Development Partners and Beam Development, two Portland companies seeking to build a mix of shopping, housing and entertainment downtown.

The debate will then shift to subsidies. Who should pay for a parking garage and how? What will be taxed when and where will the tax money go? Why should Eugeneans care? With all those “w” questions, it’s a newsgatherer’s dream. Register-Guard reporter Edward Russo will have a field day. Several.

Lost in the swirl of debate will be a subsidy that everybody in Eugene can support. It’s a source of revenue that costs none of us anything. The revenue will be in the pockets of non-Eugeneans when they arrive to a revitalized downtown, but not in their pockets when they leave.

Out-of-towners will be subsidizing the success of our downtown, thank you very much. The West Broadway development aims for a regional impact. It will draw new and more customers from farther away, and more often. Merchants typically operate on thin profit margins, so a small increase in customer traffic can keep a business profitable. Profitable businesses stay open longer — more hours and more years. Wages paid and taxes collected will increase. Every Eugenean will benefit. We’ll have strangers to thank, because it will be their money — left here — that will make the difference.

Consider three circles being drawn around and toward Eugene. They’ll come downtown, but only for short stays: tourists, neighbors and students.

TOURISTS – Tourists are the easiest to tax, because they can’t be here to vote against it. Ashland proffered a 2 percent meal tax at restaurants to subsidize their schools. It has risen now to 5 percent. CVALCO and the Lane County Fairgrounds have long been subsidized by the 10 percent T.R.T. “transient room tax” assessed to hotel rooms.

Tourism is the future for Eugene and it always will be. It’s clean, it’s fun, and it uses other people’s money.

A boutique hotel at the corner of Broadway & Willamette sets the tone perfectly. Drawing people in for a night on the town or a weekend “in the city” brings dollars to us that are not our own. They’ll enjoy our restaurants, marvel at the Hult Center, write home about Saturday Market.

After a day or two of urban revelry, they’ll want to extend their stay downtown to explore the second half of Eugene’s sloganeering claim: “the world’s greatest city for the arts and outdoors.” They’ll learn what Eugene and Mary Skinner first declared. They’ve found the perfect spot for base camp. All around them: skiing, water sports, fishing, hiking. Eugene will then be sharing the tourist bounty with the smaller towns nearby. Our neighbors will see more visitors too. They’ll like that.

NEIGHBORS – We want to be liked by our neighbors, because they’ll be visiting too, if the West Broadway development proceeds as planned. And when they visit, they’ll also be spending money.

We may not want to admit it, but we know what they want. Movies. Concerts and theater are great, but nothing will make neighboring townspeople beat a path to our door like a movie. Nearly 90 percent of arts and entertainment spending outside the home goes to the movies. A downtown multiplex will draw people from all over, making us a regional hub for arts and entertainment. Our visiting neighbors will be hungry or they’ll feel like shopping before they leave. Maybe they’ll even want to spend the night. (Leave your tip on the table.)

STUDENTS – Finally, let’s not overlook the energy and the buying power of 20,000 students. They live in Eugene for a few years, but never really call it home. But they’ll spend a lot of money before they leave.

A revitalized downtown will draw students. We can help them. Our downtown vision could be enhanced by an LTD shuttle that’s smaller, quicker and cheaper than “The Breeze.” Call it “The Poof” and run it every five minutes between the downtown and campus libraries, with no stops in between. The easier we make it for students to venture downtown, the easier it will be for downtown businesses to fill their seats or aisles. And their coffers.

Now is not the time for baby steps, for small measures, for incremental change. Our city slogan befits boldness. Let’s make downtown a center for the region that celebrates both the arts and the outdoors. If we don’t, it will remain the center of controversy, but the center of nothing else.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) also writes for the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce’s “Open for Business” magazine, but these opinions are his own only. Readers may review and comment on future columns at his blog, www.dksez.com.