Building community - one block at a time
During a Tuesday lunch gathering at Persimmon Country Club, a group of Gresham's leaders and community members found themselves playing with Legos.
They used the assorted plastic pieces, lent to the proceedings by Lynn Snodgrass' grandchildren, to create whatever came to their imagination. Some constructed vehicles or buildings that made logical sense, but fell apart when stressed. Others combined pieces that normally wouldn't go together, but ended up being a unique way to move forward.
Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis didn't have much time to play with Legos at the March 19 event. He was there for a round of questioning by Snodgrass, CEO of the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce, as part of the monthly Business Leaders Luncheon. But he does know a thing or two about putting things together while helming Oregon's fourth-largest city.
"You build and build again, and put pieces together you wouldn't think would work," Snodgrass said. "That is what Mayor Bemis has done in his time with the city."
The event, sponsored by Portland General Electric, Columbia Bank, the Gresham-Barlow School District and Metro East Community Media, had the mayor talking about what is happening in the city, plans for the community and what he hopes to accomplish during his fourth term.
When Bemis was first elected mayor in 2006, at the age of 34, he wanted to put in place a plan for the city. It was a lesson he learned as a restaurateur, when he blindly stumbled his way through the first year.
"Unlike my first year in business, I wanted us to have a plan for the city," Bemis said. "Gresham has always had strong leadership focused on the community, it's not a place for politics."
So he created a Council Work Plan, which would provide a roadmap that the entire city could follow throughout the year. The work plan is compiled by elected officials, citizen advisory groups, city staff and ongoing functions that the city always has to be concerned about, like infrastructure and safety.
It is an important document for Gresham, because the city has one of the lowest property tax rates in Oregon, meaning there is a lot less money to work with. The city has to be creative, work with partners and secure unique sources of funding to complete the simplest of projects.
"The work plan is really pragmatic, so we can get the work done that we need to," Bemis said.
The three top goals in the 2019 plan focus on: a) safe communities; b) opportunities and livability; c) and sustainable services.
"If we miss one of these, it does a disservice to the others," Bemis noted. "When I talk to my peers across the country, they are all facing the same problems."
Earlier this month, Bemis received a report that made him smile — there had been zero homicides within Gresham last year.
"A zero number for us is a huge thing," Bemis said.
Bemis has also been told there are currently no campers on the Springwater Corridor Trail. That was good news for the mayor, as Gresham's policy has been to be compassionate but firm in balancing support for struggling members of the community without sacrificing livability.
The city has two specialists working face-to-face with the homeless community, often making strides with even the most chronically struggling individuals. They are able to connect them with services, find temporary and permanent housing, reconnect them with loved ones, help complete documents and secure identification and pave the way for employment.
Since November, Gresham has found housing for 40 homeless individuals.
"Our homeless service specialists are little bit like (Snodgrass) — they won't take no for an answer," Bemis said with a laugh.
When it comes to making headway, he said the answer is persistence and accountability.
One statistic Bemis is not proud of is that Gresham ranks eighth nationally for total stolen cars, almost as bad as Portland, which is fifth. The problem is a pair of court rulings that more than doubled the number of cars stolen.
"We have pulled people over and they will have (car theft tools) in the front seat," Bemis said. "They say they borrowed the car from 'Bob' and they get off with just a slap on the wrist."
Known as the stolen car loophole, it is nearly impossible for Oregon prosecutors to stick a conviction on someone who steals vehicles. That leads to repeat offenders who never end up serving jail time.
"We are hoping they will close the loophole," Bemis said. "This has real consequences for our community."
One of Bemis' main sources of motivation is his three sons. Many of his decisions as mayor have been focused on making the community better for not only them, but all of the young people flocking to Gresham.
Every year Gresham is getting younger, he said, with more and more people moving to start a family within the city.
"Doesn't that make you feel old?" Snodgrass asked Bemis.
"…Yes," he admitted with a smile.
But Bemis also said the age demographics skewing toward younger residents excites him. The city and community have made significant investments in improving neighborhoods for kids, with the mayor highlighting the passage of both the Reynolds and Gresham-Barlow school bonds.
"For the first time you are seeing a strong educational community, business community and city government all working together," Bemis said — adding that hasn't always been the case.
Traditionally, decisions revolving around supporting kids have been left to the school districts, a practice Bemis has tried to buck. He said students only spend about 20 percent of their time within the schools, the rest of their time in the community like any other resident. So Gresham staff and leadership are working to bring more opportunities for youths.
"We need to be able to loudly say this community supports kids," Bemis said.
A recent example spearheaded by the city is the Gresham Reads program, which placed bookshelves in different partner businesses to promote a love of literature at earlier ages.
Youth in Gresham are also finding ways to become involved, with the Youth Advisory Council taking on weighty topics that many adults struggle to discuss. Bemis likes to point to a recent survey that questioned 2,000 kids across Oregon. The No. 1 thing they said they wanted for their schools was more mental health services.
"When you think of the world these kids are growing up in, it's a lot different," Bemis said. "They are taking things head-on."
In 2006, Bemis became the youngest mayor in Gresham's history. Now he holds the distinction of being the longest-serving member within the Metro Mayors Consortium, a group of 26 mayors he leads.
"It was formed out of frustration at the politics happening at the state and Metro levels," Bemis said. "It started as a way to whine about our jobs, but we started putting formal structures in place."
Now the group is able to lobby as one collective voice and brainstorm ideas for problems they all face.
Gresham is in the second year of the Street Maintenance Project, which is a five-year, $32 million effort to improve transportation.
"If you have a bad street, you are getting a new one," Bemis said.
City Council will decide what to do with the historic home included in the purchase of the Hogan Butte Nature Park. The historic home, perched at the entrance of the park, has a reputedly sordid history. Supposedly a popular speakeasy and brothel, legend says the red light indicating it was open for business could be seen all the way in Troutdale.
Gresham is looking at several options for the site. It could serve as a caretaker home, education center or a wedding/event venue.
"You want to go back to what it was?" Snodgrass wryly asked.
"Nope — I'm moving on," Bemis said with a laugh.
Gresham has used incentives and infrastructure to attract manufacturing companies and other large businesses into the region.
"Whenever I meet with someone thinking of coming to Gresham, I give them my cellphone number," Bemis said. "I tell them you won't outpace us."
The city was the first in Oregon to codify a 66-day review for business applications, much faster than regulations put in place by the state.
Exciting developments are also happening within Rockwood, with more residents able to put roots down in the neighborhoods. The Rockwood Rising site, which will create a hub filled with economic opportunities, a market hall, housing, playground and much more, will finally break ground in May.
From the beginning of the Rockwood Rising project, Bemis said he liked that it included lots of citizen input.
"I'm glad to see it coming to fruition," he said.
Bemis concluded the discussion by sharing his favorite part of being mayor — working with passionate community members to enact positive changes.
"I look across this room and I see someone who gave me my first job; sold me my first car; sold me my first house; someone who I served as a waiter. This is my community," Bemis said. "Gresham has given me everything."