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Rebuild Downtown’s Credibility First

January 15th, 2010 by dk

Last week I wrote that downtown Eugene can’t become any of the vibrant things we hope for until it’s first safe, clean and attractive. In that order. But I was wrong. Something important precedes even safety. Call it credibility. Downtown has to matter.
“The community has to make downtown matter,” says downtown property owner David Davini. “Or else it won’t.” He feels downtown has lost a decade or two. “Oakway matters. 5th Street matters. For too many people, downtown doesn’t matter.”
Downtown property owners formed Downtown Eugene Inc. (DEI) to make downtown safe and clean, but they overlooked its credibility issue, the same way I did. Downtown has stayed the same, while other parts of town have grown past it.
DEI board chairman Gerry Gaydos agrees. “It bothers me that a town as great as this doesn’t have a downtown that tells its story.”
Davini has been a downtown business owner for twenty years, and he was a DEI board member for “way too long.” He’s fuming, and frankly, a little embarrassed.
“We operated DEI the way plenty of non-profit boards operate. Our board members were involved, but not committed. We relied on staff to give us adequate information at our monthly management meetings, and apparently we didn’t always get that.”
Russ Brink served as the executive director of DEI since it was formed in 1988. He did many good things for downtown. He and I worked together on First Night, an alcohol-free New Year’s Eve celebration. He brokered a deal that saved the Eugene Celebration. He fought to get streets opened. He defended downtown.
Was Brink committed to downtown, using Davini’s distinction, or merely involved? If a chicken and a pig get together to make some ham and eggs, the chicken’s involved, but the pig has to be committed.
Greg Fleener was committed. He owned and operated Cafe Paradiso downtown for 11 years. The business climate and downtown’s micro-climate eventually bankrupted him. I tracked him down in Colorado, where he’s rebuilding his life. He didn’t offer too much in response, except to say “Eugene is a tough town.”
In 2007, the DEI board began exploring radical ideas to free up more operating funds. DEI elected to hand off its administrative overhead to the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce in 2008, and Brink stayed on for a three-month transition.
In the summer of 2008, Brink left Eugene to become the executive director for the Rockingham Area Community Land Trust in Springfield, Vermont.
That move should have saved DEI almost $100,000 per year. But so far, most of that savings has gone into cleaning up messes that Brink left behind. Nobody will admit to anything more than confusion, but a criminal investigation is ongoing. When the confusions mounted to the point of requiring a full audit of DEI’s financial records, Brink told a Register-Guard reporter that things were more complicated than they seemed. He asked for patience and understanding.
That was nearly a year ago. I’ve tried to reach him a couple of times. Others have too. He hasn’t returned my calls, except an e-mail message this week that offered the Internet-equivalent of “no comment.”
Brink left his Vermont job in September. His former employer also offered no comment on his departure, but the abrupt change surprised many in Vermont.
Longtime Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Dave Hauser knows the feeling. He recalls the moment when he first got surprised. Brink had just left for his new job. “I went into the cubicle that Russ had been using, because I needed a file or something. I looked down into his waste basket and saw a bunch of torn up bank statements. I thought, this can’t be good.”
The audit followed. Sorting through the financial records has taken almost a year and consumed all of the administrative savings so far. “We expected the transition to consume energy and resources for the first six months. It’s taken us eighteen,” says Hauser. “That’s the bad news. The good news is we’re just about up to speed now.” Downtown may now be on the cusp of having the vision and leadership — and credibility — to make its vibrancy matter.
Return to Davini’s distinction. Downtown may benefit from more people being involved. But what really matters is those few who are committed.
Don Kahle ( writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard. Past columns are archived right here.

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  • 1 Jim Wilcox Jan 15, 2010 at 11:39 am

    I’ve been interested in and worked toward the success of downtown Eugene since I arrived here to attend the U of O in 1973. I realized the mall was not working, but did not expect opening the downtown to streets was the answer as promised. In a letter to the R-G Editor published around ’88 I noted the real problem: Other competing areas like VRC and Oakway can control the social experience. People who visit downtown have to face the color of our culture, and too many of our society can’t handle that. The poor, the dirty, the vulgar. Hate to say it, but we need behavior expectations downtown and the ability to enforce them like any private mall. But defenders of civil rights will protest that. I say, there is no freedom when one does not feel free from danger downtown.
    So I have seen promises that street openings would solve things, (Which came out better than I expected), Broadway Place would solve things, promised new development (where are the people who were against the bond measure?), the failure of leadership in managing the mall, and numerous meetings with well paid staff and consultants that promise one more solution. A group of us offered our own ideas, as outlined in a letter sent to the City, only to have other competing “visions” adopted due to promised money that never materialized. While people want to back a winner, there is a cost when we keep promising a winning solution that is never fulfilled. That’s what creates the “credibility gap” Kahle refers to.
    My recent experience is indicative of the problem: While attending a meeting (volunteer time) held by city staffers to offer options that would make downtown more vibrant and secure, I had the most meaningless item stolen from my bike. When I expressed frustration, I was told: “That’s why I never ride my bike downtown unless I can keep it inside”. Keeping it inside that night was not offered as an option, but it should have been.
    I’ve tried to offer solutions, with our proposal for a Housing-Transit Center, a successful Solar Fest I organized years ago, numerous meetings with the committed business owners and Russ Brink, who seemed to slowly withdraw from the failure for which he was well paid but not made accountable for. Who was his supervisor?
    I am glad to see the Chamber work to fix things to make downtown successful for business. But we need social change, not free parking.
    In the 80’s the section of Willamette was called the gut, and it meant a parade of cars each Friday night, with neighborhoods like mine bearing the consequences of trash, fights, public urination, and the beauty of used condoms in the streets Saturday mornings. A law was passed making continued driving on the gut illegal, and it worked.
    We need something like that approach for downtown. If people want to protest the erosion of civil liberty, go to VRC, Gateway Mall, or Oakway and protest. See how far you get. As it stands now, downtown Eugene is held hostage to uncivil citizens and civil libertarians who are helpful to a fault. When I saw large groups of unruly youth last night from the library, past LTD and to 10th and Willamette, I wondered, where are their parents? When I was underage, we had a curfew and if you were caught after that time, your parents found out. Fine the parents for these disruptive behaviors, and you will see a change. This will help reduce incidents like the one I saw and intervened: Two girls beating on an older developmentally delayed male.
    It is time to do some more social engineering if we are to expect any of the brick and mortar solutions to work. I said it in the late ’80s, and it is still true 22 years later.

  • 2 Kate Feb 7, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    It’s nice to know there are people out there who are trying to make downtown eugene something. :)