Salem always has had a bit of a “pass-through” problem to contend with. Many of the state workers live somewhere else, and if you come down from Portland just to do business, which a lot of people do during the legislative session, you take a fast road into the city core, and then speed out again. This drive-by view of Salem doesn’t give you a full view of some impressive progress being made in the state’s capital, despite the recession.
Anytime I head to Salem, I always make it a point to spend time with Mayor Janet Taylor. The chic high-energy mayor knows her city inside out and on this trip the discussion was more poignant than previous ones. Taylor, who is 68, announced in mid-September that she would retire in December 2010, having by then served four two-year terms.
As we ate lunch at the Phoenix Grand Hotel, itself a point of pride for downtown redevelopment, she outlined what she would focus on in the next year: basically, jobs, jobs and jobs. It isn’t much different than the focus of her past three terms, and it’s refreshing to hear a politician’s understanding that without enough jobs in your community, nothing else really matters. Core issues of poverty, education and health all depend on being able to earn a livable wage.
Taylor plans to find out what needs to be streamlined for business, what creates extra cost, and figure out how to work with the state on infrastructure needs. She confided that the city was close to getting a “big distribution company” to set up shop in Salem that would bring 250 jobs with it, and perhaps another solar company and maybe some of Sanyo’s vendors.
It’s the all-important cluster effect. Sanyo Solar of Oregon's $80 million solar-cell manufacturing plant opens this coming Monday, bringing with it 200 jobs. The factory will produce silicon wafers for solar cells and is located in the Salem Renewable Energy and Technology Park.
Jobs also came with the dazzling new $40 million Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, which opened just a few weeks ago. The center provides 160 mostly part-time positions and already has 5,000 members. The Kroc grant provided $35 million for construction and the same amount for an operating endowment, and residents raised more than $10 million. Impressive for a city where a significant portion of its residents live in poverty.
The 92,000-square-foot center has a competition-size swimming pool (which Taylor fought particularly hard for), family fun pool, community rooms, an NBA-sized basketball court, workout room and climbing wall. Taylor says she ran for one more term just so she could preside over the opening of the center. As she gives me a tour of the center, pointing out each feature and talking about what it means to the community, I don’t doubt her at all.
Also doggedly moving along is the redevelopment of the old Boise Cascade mill in Salem's downtown. It’s been demolished and plans for the 13-acre site include a mixed-use development that includes a destination lifestyle center, housing, live/work spaces, offices, riverfront dining and public access to the river. The site reportedly already has attracted interest from a health club, hotel and restaurant.
“Salem has turned a corner. I’m not sure exactly when it happened,” said Tim Gerling, the project manager for the Boise site redevelopment, in the Statesman Journal a few months ago. “We’re not the town we were 30 years ago.”
I have to disagree. With the Kroc Center's debut, Sanyo open for business and the old mill site gearing up for transformation, it’s not the town it was three years ago.
Robin Doussard is the Editor of Oregon Business.