Both candidates for an Oregon City commission seat have strong roots in the community, and while the incumbent would like to build on the commission’s work of the past four years, his opponent is coming out swinging for an upset in November.

Commission president and lifelong resident Rocky Smith Jr. is an Oregon City High School art teacher whose father was a city police officer and whose uncle was mayor.

Smith, 35, received 46 percent of the vote to incumbent commissioner Trent Tidwell and co-challenger Phil Yates in the 2008 race for the city commission.

Smith says the city needs to come out with another solution for the library quickly, but “coming up with the right solution” is equally important to him.

“We’re in a really good place in Oregon City right now, but one of the major things we need to think about is issues with the facilities,” Smith said. “We’re not talking about just the library, we’re talking about public works, we need to replace the police station by 2020 and we have a City Hall that looks nice but is too small, so we need to decide how we’re going to expand the space there.”

Smith’s challenger, Tim Powell, a former city commissioner and former chairman of Oregon City’s Planning Commission, also has strong ties with the Oregon City School District. His wife, Delpha Powell, is a special-ed instructional assistant for K-3 students at Jennings Lodge Elementary.

Chairman of the McLoughlin Neighborhood Association, Powell is the retail manager for the Classic Pool and Spa branch opening in Aloha, and his goal is to get back to the company’s outlet in Gladstone.

After graduating from Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, Powell, who turns 58 in October, was a flight attendant for 10 years before he met his Oregon-born wife and also fell in love with the Portland area.

Powell says he’s gotten tired of watching projects “fester at the commission level” as elected officials are busy “hemming and hawing” over decisions.

“I understand how much money has been spent on studying these projects, and to have the city commissioners sit there and not make a decision, is really a concern,” Powell said. “We vote for someone to go in there and review things and make things happen. Those are benefits for this community, and the lack of growth is starting to destroy our community.”

Smith argues all of Oregon City’s building needs will require voter support, and with voters rejecting last year funding requests by the Oregon City School District and Clackamas Community College, “we’re going to have to be very considerate about the plans.”

Smith criticizes past commissions for failing to develop a comprehensive facilities plan to tackle all of these challenges together.

“We’re not to the place where we can say that we have a good answer,” Smith said. “I would like to see more discussion on how to deal with all of the facility issues on the whole.”

Smith also takes issue with the idea that commissioners haven’t accomplished anything in the past four years. During a work session last week, commissioners discussed progress on the Ermatinger House, after raising about $420,000 to start dealing with saving what Smith saw as a historic treasure and potential tourist draw.

“We’ve gotten all the neighborhood associations back active, and the Tourism Council, when they were all basically disbanded when I took office,” Smith said. “One of my main focuses when I ran was the police department, and we had planned to hire new two police officer (positions) during that time, and I advocated that we hire seven. Switching over to a 4-10 shift has taken the additional coverage and added to that.”

Urban renewal at issue

Powell targets Smith for allegedly dragging his heels on urban-renewal projects.

“We could have used that money more efficiently, and had they been supportive of the projects all along, they’d be in place now,” Powell said. “There were many great opportunities we had up there that we squandered, and now we’re left holding bake sales.”

Smith found himself between two factions on the commission during the past year or two. He shares a frustration about “the back and forth” where “we tend to take positions on one side of the fence or the other.”

Smith said the answer, however, isn’t to go into negotiations with preconceived notions and decisions already made.

“It’s a very emotional and political debate, but that black-and-white viewpoint is not going to move us forward,” Smith said. “My only reservations with The Rivers and other large developments is that we didn’t have the services to deal with them, and I don’t think that’s a problem anymore.”

Smith pledges to continue a balanced approach.

“Being on the minority the first couple years was really tough, but once there was kind of a shift with the (2010) election, I didn’t feel it was fair to put the other people on the commission in the same position,” Smith said. “It’s never easy, but we actually have more things in common than we know. Instead of working together we tend to fight on the small things that we disagree on.”

Although he’s aware of possible abuses of urban renewal, Powell also makes clear that he opposes Measure 3-407, also on November’s ballot. If passed, the measure would require voter approval if the commission wanted to issue urban-renewal bonds.

“It’s going to be a problem to have to go through a vote every time we want to go into the toolbox for using urban renewal,” Powell said. “Cities have taken advantage of urban renewal, and I completely understand that, but I think we can use urban renewal to do good things.”

Smith said that now that the urban-renewal measure is “in the hands of the voters,” it shouldn’t be a campaign issue.

“The voters are going to tell us what they want us to do, and that’s what we’re going to have to do, so I don’t see that it’s going to be up to us,” he said.

On the Cove project, Smith acknowledges that agreement is “obviously not going as quickly as we thought it would, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens to the Cove now that this ballot measure is up, because it may drive us to a deal faster, or it may break up the deal altogether.”

Downtown focus

Smith says that commissioners have started making progress on the Urban Renewal Commission, which has been working with storefront grants and adaptive infill plans.

“If we get to the point where we have some small successes, it will get easier to tackle these bigger projects,” Smith said

Powell thinks Oregon City “citizens want a strong government” and a strong center, which he believes needs more residential building to thrive.

“I’m excited about the changes, and I think the downtown manager is doing a great job, but that alone is not going to revitalize downtown,” Powell said. “What makes a vital downtown is people living and recreating downtown, and there’s such an opportunity down there.”

Smith is also “really excited” about downtown, and is serving on the committee to plan the Arch Bridge reopening in October. He would like to see a shift of resources to other parts of Oregon City, which he believes can be accomplished once projects are completed on Main Street

“When you walk through downtown, you definitely feel that things are changing and improving, but not all business owners are feeling that they’re part of it. Main Street can’t listen too much, and there’s still work to be done in those areas,” Smith said.

As his campaign message, Powell emphasizes what he sees as a need for action.

“We keep redoing the plans, but we never do anything with them,” Powell said. “What I can bring to the table is looking at things from a business perspective, because we’re here to make the city more prosperous, livable and energetic. We need to work closely with our business partners, whoever they are out there, and I don’t think we’re doing a good job with that now. We need to work closely with developers and Metro to bring that Blue Heron site up to its potential.”

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