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Urban renewal pegged as tool to make 'dreams come true'

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City explores $41 million plan to build waterfront infrastructure, upgrade roads

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Emily Picha, a consultant from ECONortwest, speaks to the St. Helens Urban Renewal Advisory Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 8. During the meeting, committee members discussed priority projects and associated finances.St. Helens residents could see major improvements to street connections along Old Portland Road and Columbia Boulevard, the expansion of Columbia View Park, and infrastructure upgrades to the city's waterfront property if an urban renewal district is adopted by the City Council later this year.

The city is considering adopting an urban renewal district to help fund development projects along its waterfront. City Administrator John Walsh said urban renewal is the best catalyst to jump-start city improvements.

"It's the financing tool that will make all of our dreams come true in terms of planning work," Walsh said.

The city will host an open house Tuesday, Feb. 21, from 6 to 8 p.m., to communicate its plans to the public.

The city began seriously exploring the urban renewal option in fall as a potential funding source to pay for future development projects. An advisory committee comprised of 12 members from the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, the Port of St. Helens, St. Helens School District, Columbia River Fire and Rescue and other key stakeholder groups has been meeting since November to begin drafting plans.

On Tuesday, Feb. 7, the advisory committee met for an hour and a half to discuss a potential project list and the financial implications of forming an urban renewal district. Most advisory committee members expressed support for a $41 million plan that would fund the establishment of waterfront land infrastructure, create and improve road connections, improve Old Portland Road and Columbia Boulevard, and install infrastructure for a marina.

A detailed, project-specific list of what is included in that plan will be presented at the next advisory committee meeting in April.

The city attempted, and failed, to establish an urban renewal district in 2008. Pushback from the Columbia River Fire and Rescue fire district helped scuttle the proposal.

Over the life of the current proposed plan, each tax district, like CRFR, would have its tax base frozen within the urban renewal zone. As property value increases due to annual adjustments or the siting of new developments within the urban renewal district, the increase in tax dollars, called tax increment, is used to pay for projects identified in the urban renewal plan.

In the past, the Columbia River Fire and Rescue district has been opposed to urban renewal efforts because of the lost future revenue from properties in identified urban renewal districts. Fire Chief Mike Greisen said he generally he is in favor of the plan now because he understands the needs of St. Helens to grow economically. Additionally, the city has a more clear-cut plan of what to do with urban renewal dollars, something that was previously lacking, he explained.

In 2010, the Oregon State Legislature passed laws that revised urban renewal implementation, limiting what some considered a heavy-handed approach such districts previously had. Greisen said that move also changed his view on urban renewal.

ECONorthwest consultant Lorelei Juntunen explained that urban renewal development really only works when all overlapping districts are understanding and supportive of the overarching community benefits that result. Greisen echoed similar sentiments, but acknowledged the positive outcome comes at a cost.

"What everybody learned is that, everybody needs to be involved to make economic development happen ... and we know it's going to cost us to get the jobs," Greisen said.

As the city grows and industry moves in, it puts a strain on service agencies like the fire district or sheriff's office, Greisen explained, as the service area becomes more populated. If the fire district doesn't have the revenue it needs to support an increase in calls, it can have negative consequences.