Ideas for city's future come alive in play
by: ©2006 DAVID PLECHL, Dennis Mosley (middle) plays a Portland cop turned mayoral candidate in Sojourn Theatre’s “One Day,” funded by a grant from a visioning project enacted by Tom Potter, a former Portland police chief turned mayor.

Mayor Tom Potter's visioning process will get the off-Broadway treatment starting tonight when the nationally recognized Sojourn Theatre company begins a four-week run of 'One Day,' a new play written to prompt Portlanders to think about the future of their city.

According to Artistic Director Michael Rohd, the play is part of a yearlong collaboration between the theater company and the visioning process, formally known as VisionPDX. It tells the story of eight Portlanders and the decisions they make during a 24-hour period - and then the actors invite the audiences to talk to the characters about their decisions.

'The characters and the decisions they make are fictitious, but they are based on the research that the city has conducted so far, so they reflect the issues and challenges we are all facing,' Rohd said.

The play comes at a pivotal point in the two-year schedule of the visioning project. Although the City Council approved $1.1 million for the project, the staff is preparing a $175,000 request to fund the beginning of its next phase, the development of a community action plan to ensure it is enacted.

'People have repeatedly told us that they don't want to see another plan that just sits on the shelf. We must make sure that it is followed up on,' Project Manager Liesl Wendt said.

But the request - involving one-time funds in this year's city budget - comes before the public has seen the results of the project so far. Project staff and volunteers spent the spring and summer convincing between 12,000 and 15,000 people to fill out questionnaires about their visions for the future. The survey research laboratory at Portland State University now is analyzing them.

When that is done, the results will be combined with other research being conducted for the project and released during a series of public events during a Vision Week scheduled for the last week of January. After that, the council will be presented with a vision statement and plan by April.

In the meantime, questions are being raised about the value of VisionPDX. Some critics wonder why the city needs to adopt a new vision when many neighborhood associations already have adopted long-range plans - plans the existing City Council does not always follow.

Associations feel ignored

The board of the Northwest District Association debated whether to even bother filling out an official VisionPDX questionnaire at its September meeting. Former Portland mayor and NDA board member Bud Clark complained that the City Council approved the construction of five parking garages in Northwest Portland despite opposition from the association.

The exchange prompted a Northwest Examiner newspaper editor to write a column slamming the visioning process in his October issue, declaring it to be a 'meaningless exercise.'

'I have a lot of concern about it,' Clark told the Portland Tribune. 'Neighborhoods are already spending years writing plans - which the council wants them to do - and then the council ignores them. Why do we need a new vision if the council is not respecting the current ones?'

Clark also cited the council's recent rejection of the Linnton Village plan as an example of the futility of adopting a new city vision. Although the Linnton Neighborhood Association spent years developing a proposal for a mixed-use development along the west bank of the Willamette River, the council turned it down on a 3-2 vote, in part because of safety concerns over nearby petroleum storage tanks.

Hillsdale Neighborhood Association President Don Baack believes the vision plan is on the right track, however. Baack, who serves on the 46-member VisionPDX steering committee, said he and other committee members are grappling with serious issues, including whether the Portland Development Commission should continue supporting large projects, such as the condominium towers rising in the South Waterfront.

'We are hearing from the people of the city and understand that they have very real concerns about the future,' Baack said.

Themes start to emerge

Potter ran for mayor on a platform of listening to the public. After he was elected, he persuaded the council to approve the project to ask Portlanders to look into the future and say what they want the city to be in 30 years.

The committee overseeing the project includes neighborhood leaders, community organizations, social service providers, minorities and others. Among other things, the group approved the questionnaire that was filled out and collected earlier this year.

Many of the questionnaires were distributed at civic and neighborhood events over the summer. Others were managed by 29 nonprofit organizations that qualified to divide $250,000 in grants approved by the committee. Their goal was to reach Portlanders who are not normally involved in the city decision-making process, including immigrants and the homeless.

Although the answers are still being analyzed, Wendt said that some major themes already have begun to emerge.

'A lot of people are concerned about keeping Portland's small-town feel as it grows larger,' she said.

Wendt said that more specific issues also are apparent. For example, many people are concerned about aggressive panhandling and the lack of public restrooms downtown.

Community grants coordinator Amanda Rhoads said the questionnaires also have been helpful for identifying neighborhood issues. Among other things, Rhoads said that many east-side residents are concerned about the changing demographics in their neighborhoods, while a recurring theme in Southwest Portland is the lack of sidewalks and bicycle paths on major streets.

'The final plan needs to reflect the different issues in different parts of town,' she said.

Although the council will not receive the vision statement and plan until April, Wendt said making sure it is enacted is a top priority. The Portland Bureau of Planning already is preparing to use the information in the development of a five-year strategic plan for the city.

But Wendt said a separate group - perhaps a new nonprofit organization - also might be required to keep it on track. Preliminary work on developing a follow-up action plan could begin this year if the council approves the $175,000 sought by the project.

The request must compete with more than $23 million in other requests for approximately $19 million in one-time funds in this year's budget. Wendt said no decision has been made on whether to request more funds next year for following up on the project.

'It's too early to know what kind of form it will take, but everyone will be disappointed if it just sits on the shelf,' Wendt said.

Clark cautions against believing the plan will result in real change.

'I think the council should just level with the people and say, 'We'll listen to you when we want to, and we'll ignore you the rest of the time,' ' he said.

Baack argues Portlanders should wait and see the final plan before making up their minds about it, however.

'From what I'm seeing, it could lead to real change,' he said.

Responses add up to a play

Sojourn Theatre was hired by VisionPDX on a $20,000 grant to develop the play that makes its debut tonight. Other sponsors include PGE, the Oregon Cultural Trust and the Oregon Arts Commission,

The company has a history of civic engagement projects. In 2005 it staged a play on the state of the Oregon public school system in partnership with the Chalkboard Project, a nonprofit school advocacy group.

The play, called 'Witness Our Schools,' was based on interviews with 500 Oregonians. It included an audience participation segment and was staged throughout the state, including performances at the Oregon Legislature and Oregon Department of Education.

Sojourn Theatre members first worked together in the late 1990s at Virginia Tech University's department of theater arts in Blacksburg, Va. Since moving to Portland in the fall of 2000, they have created numerous plays, workshops and residencies that explore contemporary social and political issues.

As a result of its work, in August 2005 the company was awarded an Exemplar Program grant by Americans for the Arts, the nation's leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts in the country. The grants were awarded to a mere dozen arts organizations in the country - including only one other theater group, the Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theater Co.

To write 'One Day,' Sojourn members examined many of the questionnaires completed earlier this year. The company also held a series of public forums to talk with Portlanders about their hopes and fears for the future.

'Some common themes emerged, including a concern for the environment and a concern over housing costs and zoning. A lot of people are into the planning that has already gone into creating the city,' Rohd said.

Theater members then created eight fictional characters intended to represent typical Portlanders, including a small-business owner, a Northeast pastor and a homeowner concerned about the effects of gentrification.

'Our goal is not to show what the city is going to look like in 30 years, but what issues we are facing now that have to be addressed before we get there,' said Rohr, addint that audience reaction will become part of the VisionPDX record.

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