Diving into the Decade
Shane Bemis moved into the city of Gresham as a 15-year-old from Montana with his family, a few days before starting his freshman year at Gresham High School.
His family didn't have a lot of resources and were living in a hotel. But during what could have been a difficult time for Bemis, he instead felt welcomed in his new city.
"This community gave me everything," Bemis said. "There has always been this narrative in the region about this place — but we never believed it."
But as poverty and crime started to creep east, Bemis said that positive community outlook was shaken for some. The issues were complex and overwhelming.
"For a moment some started to believe the negative narrative," said Bemis, speaking to The Outlook. "But the spirit is back."
Gresham's mayor described a feeling of "Gresham Pride" in 2019 — and added there was a lot of accomplishments across the community to bolster those feelings. Industry is booming; more young families are moving into Gresham; crime is down; there are more social services and organizations moving east; youths are passionate and involved; and so much more.
For Bemis, who was first sworn in as the city's 26th mayor in 2007, the future is just as bright.
"The world is ours in 2020," the mayor said.
Solving complex issues
Gresham experienced a lot of economic growth in the industrial sector this past year — something city leadership has been encouraging through programs like the Enterprise Zone and other incentives.
"Almost everyone I talk to is busy with customers, the economy is humming," Bemis said.
One of the major steps taken this past year was the groundbreaking for the long-planned Rockwood Rising project in June.
Rockwood Rising brings new construction and needed services into the neighborhood. The Catalyst Site, between Southeast Stark Street, Southeast 185th Avenue and East Burnside Street, features a central square with a public plaza and play structures for kids, an innovation hub with services for locals, retail stores, apartments, and a market hall with foods from the many cultures in the community.
"I don't think anyone had an idea the gestation for this work would take 14 years," said Bemis during the celebration. "Our patience was wildly rewarded — this is a special place and special project."
The plan is for everything to be complete in 2021.
Keeping things moving
Improving transportation continued to be an ongoing project in 2019. The city repaved/rebuilt 29.3 lane miles last year, fronting 1,559 properties. In addition, 170 new sidewalk ramps, in alignment with the Americans With Disabilities Act, were installed and completed.
Gresham was active at the Legislature this year, advocating for policies and funding. The city secured $2 million for the East Multnomah Gang Enforcement Team. It also closed a stolen vehicle prosecution loophole with the passage of House Bill 2328, alongside the efforts of local business leaders.
The city received $2 million for Gradin Sports Park, which continues its steady march toward completion.
Homelessness continues to be something the city of Gresham is focused on fixing. The city permanently housed more than 130 people and got more than 100 others into shelters, residential treatment programs and recovery-based programs.
"Homelessness wasn't an issue in the suburbs in the past, so we would rely on the county for programs and services," Bemis said. "But now we built our own system — we are flexible and able to help those in need."
The city said it has had an 80% drop in police calls related to homeless activity in the past year. Officials also said the number of unsheltered individuals in Gresham is down 25%.
There were two homicides in the city of Gresham, a slight uptick from none in 2018. But the past two years are a significant drop-off from the past trends, when homicides floated right around eight per year in Gresham.
"I used to think the solution to crime was to arrest your way out of it," Bemis said. "But it's infrastructure and social services. We are getting to kids early and giving them positive experiences in their neighborhoods."
Kids are the future
Bemis, and the other city leaders, have always been focused on uplifting kids, which is more critical now as young families continue to flock to Gresham.
"Age has never been a thing for me, the young are valuable and shouldn't be dismissed," Bemis said. "And it's not like the adults have gotten it right on a lot of stuff."
Bemis described issues that need youthful voices.
"People my age can't relate to being hunted in their classrooms," he said.
Nationally, and in Gresham, the focus has been on getting kids more involved in what is happening in their hometowns. City leadership is supportive of Youth Councils and the annual Youth Summit for high schoolers hosted in Gresham City Hall. Some of it is demystifying the political system. Bemis said he was surprised about the questions he heard related to voting, like how much it cost to register as a voter.
"We can empower people at a young age," Bemis said.
Proud of 2019
About a month ago, the mayor received a 2019 Civil Rights Champion Award from the League of Minority Voters.
He was honored alongside former state Sen. Margaret Carter, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, John M. Haroldson, district attorney of Benton County, and attorney Liani Reeves.
"The level of hate and racism that exists is troubling," Bemis said. "I didn't want any ambiguity in Gresham — everyone is welcome and hate is not a Gresham value."
While the Gresham City Council is in the process of creating its roadmap for the coming year, there are general focuses. Bemis said the city will continue to develop new neighborhoods, attract large investments, promote small businesses and host community events to bring people together.
He said there will be challenges. One he anticipates is the city budget. Gresham has always had to be creative in funding projects and services in the past, and things could get tighter next decade.
"We have done well with just a little, but there will be next steps and decisions for the community," he said. "We have to decide what amenities and investments we want to make."
Bemis said it will take an investment from everyone in the community to keep Gresham as welcoming now as it was when he first moved here as teenager. But it was events like the Lilac Run to support mentors; a community dog walk despite the bitter cold to celebrate Gresham being named a Better City for Pets; the Gresham Arts Festival and Teddy Bear Parade bringing thousands into downtown; and an afternoon playing baseball with kids of all ages that makes the mayor smile and maintain his excitement for the future.
"We had a really terrific year," Bemis said. "I can't wait for the next one."
By the numbers
In 2019, new construction permits were filed in Gresham for several major projects:
-- Imperial Cabinets: Three buildings, 81,930 square feet.
-- Statewide Restoration: Utility building, 4,900 square feet.
-- Phelan Development: 107,000 square feet.
-- Element 6 Diamond Manufacturer: 69,900 square feet.
The Subaru Distribution Center also filed for an expansion, covering an almost $20 million investment that includes new equipment and hiring.
The traded-sector companies have created about 1,000 jobs since 2016. From Nov. 4, 2018, through the same date in 2019, Gresham saw 91 commercial projects completed, including new buildings, additions, remodels and tenants.
"Our small businesses are growing, too," Bemis said. "There is little to no vacant space in the city."
There is a need for more retail options and amenities in certain neighborhoods, and the challenge is enticing brick and mortar stores while online shopping is at an all-time high.
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