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City will revisit downtown street plan

Long before my term as mayor began, I was passionate about enhancing our historic downtown and creating an 18-hour environment where our local businesses succeed and our residents enjoy spending time with their families and friends.

Back in 2009, when we began discussing a traffic pattern change in downtown Hillsboro, I heard the experts say one-way traffic was not only failing to help our merchants, it was actually bad for business. After learning that, whenever I saw a vacant storefront or a “closing” sign, I wondered what would have happened if downtown Hillsboro had the benefit of two-way street traffic? How many more sales would the businesses have yielded? Could the owners have stayed open? And how many other businesses would locate downtown if not for the one-way grid?

I genuinely care about the city of Hillsboro, and I saw it as my duty to invest my time and energy into helping our downtown move forward as a great destination.

In evaluating the downtown’s financial success, we’ve seen a few improvements over the past 30 years, but generally the rents and property values in downtown have not kept pace with other parts of our city, such as Orenco Station, AmberGlen, and Tanasbourne. We have many great businesses in downtown Hillsboro, but they struggle with a limited customer base. I’ve been told that financial institutions are either hesitant or refuse to loan money to businesses on one-way street grids. Learning this made me even more committed to removing the barriers that keep businesses away.

My intent all along has been to make downtown a more vibrant place, and over the past six years, the city and community have researched and discussed the two-way street conversion concept at more than a half-dozen public meetings. We’ve held four community open houses to listen to neighbors, performed a “Walkability Audit for Downtown Hillsboro,” met with experts and local business owners — and the list continues. We built a consensus among the Transportation Committee and the Planning Commission that converting our downtown streets to two-way traffic was the right thing to do.

Times change, though, and the current petition organizers present a real dilemma for the city’s plans to move forward on a construction contract. Should we stick with the plan and go full-speed ahead? Should we hit the pause button and wait for a campaign to play out before spending more money? Should we re-evaluate whether the two-way street conversion has the necessary support to enhance downtown?

I appreciate how many small business owners and civic supporters have worked with me to champion the two-way street conversion, and our work is not done. We need to continue this dialogue and encourage our neighbors to study the reasons: Better visibility for businesses. More customers. Less driver confusion. A better environment to attract new businesses. But the street conversion is just one aspect of the city of Hillsboro’s Downtown Enhancement Program, a comprehensive strategy to continue the revitalization of downtown.

I strongly believe switching to two-way traffic is the way to help our downtown succeed. I also believe the city of Hillsboro is a great city that does not need a well-intentioned traffic change to grow into a major point of division for our community and city council. We have too many tremendous projects moving ahead right now, too many exciting opportunities to pursue here in Hillsboro and we should not get bogged down.

As mayor, it is my responsibility to help the council members — as the democratically-elected leadership serving the citizens of Hillsboro — to work together and identify common ground. After much consideration, a 4-3 vote on the street conversion does not reflect the common ground we should strive for to enhance our downtown and the city as a whole.

At the next Hillsboro City Council meeting, I will call for a discussion of the two-way street conversion. If the council is divided without clear consensus in support of the conversion, I will call for the project to be shelved and for the May 2014 ordinance to be repealed.

No matter what, I will continue to work with downtown business owners and land owners to champion downtown Hillsboro’s cause.

Jerry Willey is mayor of the city of Hillsboro.