Rebuild Downtown’s Credibility First

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.