Housing, economic development and the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center were all topics of concern during a forum for Hermiston City Council candidates Wednesday night.
The seven candidates took questions presented by the Greater Hermiston Area Chamber of Commerce. Michael Engelbrecht (Ward 4) was not at the forum after announcing to the Hermiston Herald that he is in the process of submitting paperwork to formally withdraw from the race due to a changing employment situation that means he may not be living in Hermiston next year. Incumbent Jackie Myers (Ward 3) was also absent from the council portion.
Questions covered a variety of problems facing Hermiston, giving candidates one minute each to present a solution.
A hot topic for the city recently has been how to make the new $17 million Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center financially self-sustainable.
Several candidates mentioned keeping VenuWorks, which was recently contracted to run the center’s day to day operations, accountable and making sure the professional venue management company is yielding good results.
“We need to keep their feet to the flame,” Mark Gomolski (Ward 1) said.
Roy Barron (Ward 2) said he believed that EOTEC’s current rental fee structure is unaffordable for most prospective clients, and that hurts the center’s ability to attract events. He cited EOTEC being passed up by the Hermiston School District as a graduation venue as an example. He also said the facility needs to expand the services it provides to people renting the event center.
Shean Fitzgerald (Ward 2) said he thought the city should also seek private donations and volunteer work to help supplement the city’s support for EOTEC.
One of the council’s current goals is tackling a shortage of affordable housing for families moving to Hermiston. Jackie Linton (Ward 1) said she believes the council is on the right track there. Linton, who is not currently on the council but has been attending meetings regularly for about two years, described recent changes the council made to zoning, lot coverage rules and other steps to encourage infill development of empty lots scattered around town.
“I think this will help as far as housing is concerned, bringing in more homes with the zoning laws being changed, and making it more accessible for families to buy and purchase and own their own home,” she said.
Incumbent Doug Smith (Ward 4) said a next step needed to be addressing the shortage of contractors that makes the housing shortage worse. He referenced Ranch & Home, which hasn’t been able to complete its store on the south end of Hermiston yet due to problems finding electricians.
“In order to actually get those houses built we have to have contractors to be able to come and do it,” he said.
The topic of economic development was woven throughout the evening, as candidates discussed the need to bring in new homes, businesses and tourism to the area.
Kyran Miller (Ward 3) said new businesses and homes won’t appear until the city has things that make people want to visit and live in Hermiston. He criticized the school district’s graduation rate as a drawback to people researching whether they wanted to move to Hermiston. He also said he wants to see the city complete projects that make Hermiston a “city of destination,” and praised the creation of the urban renewal district downtown.
“Again, it has taken forever to get anything done, but we’re showing results,” he said.
Incumbent Lori Davis said Hermiston growth “is a positive thing but can also be a challenge.” She said she would like to see more retail, restaurants and housing available to help attract larger industries. She said that she thinks that projects the city has in the works, from the festival street to a planned new skate park, will help.
Linton said small businesses are the backbone of any city’s economy and she wanted to see the city be as supportive as it can to small businesses and residents trying to start a new business, in addition to trying to bring in new business.
“Help them to be able to start a business here in Hermiston,” she said. “That will bring in more tax dollars. That will also help to bring in more people, who will buy property, buy homes.”
Fitzgerald said the city should work to recruit large businesses like Lamb Weston to help Hermiston’s economy grow. He also said the community needed to stop putting new taxes like school bonds on the residents before old debts were paid off.
Economic issues weren’t the only ones discussed Wednesday — candidates also shared their goals to help Hermiston’s people.
Barron worked as an alcohol and drug councilor for Umatilla County before the drug court closed and now works for the county’s mental health program in schools called RISE. He said he is passionate about tackling the city’s addiction and mental health problems.
Davis discussed the need for Hermiston to keep up its infrastructure so that residents have good roads to drive on and the community doesn’t start losing assets because they are too far gone to fix.
Smith said Hermiston is his home, and he cares deeply about making it a better place. He recited his personal cell phone number to the audience and said he is open any time, any place to hearing feedback on city issues. Miller said he wanted the city council to start holding monthly forums, but if other councilors weren’t willing to participate he would “put up a tent in my front yard” if that’s what it took.
Gomolski also touted his commitment to transparency, stating that the city council doesn’t do enough to inform residents and hold public hearings on issues before voting on them. He also said that the city needed to “re-invest” in its relationship with the chamber of commerce and do more to support that organization.
For a full video of the council forum, visit altv.us.
All voters will have an opportunity to vote for candidates in each ward on May 15. For Wards 2, 3 and 4 that election will be consiered the general election, while for Ward 1 the top two vote-getters will advance to a general election in November unless one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, at which time only that candidate’s name will be on the November ballot with space for a write-in. More information about each candidate’s biography and positions will be available in a special voter’s edition of the Hermiston Herald coming April 18.