St. Helens takes stock and eyes future of city, schools
Many issues shone at the St. Helens' State of the City meeting last weekend, but none as poignantly as when St. Helens Police Chief Brian Greenway spoke of what happened in October — when an active shooter started firing near the Chevron fuel station on Highway 30.
"That struck us to our core," Greenway told the audience of roughly 50 people at St. Helens Middle School on Saturday morning, Jan. 11. "We can thank the handsome young officer standing in the back of the room here today, Officer Elijah Merkwan, who saved some lives that night."
The resounding standing ovation for Merkwan set a hopeful tone for the event, which sought to tout city and school district achievements in 2019 and challenges for 2020.
Greenway said his priorities for the new year include reducing crime by 5% and planning for a new police station to replace the antiquated, cramped headquarters at 150 S. 13th St.
"The station is only 2,200 square feet — a common size of a house, yet our 20 employees have to fit in it," he said.
City Administrator John Walsh described 2019 "as an unprecedented year for growth, with more than 250 housing units under construction."
Walsh noted a shift from St. Helens being overwhelmingly a city of single-family homes to one with more multi-family rental opportunities.
He also predicted the proposed waterfront redevelopment, which anticipates a boutique hotel and mixed-used businesses and housing, could "make the waterfront the hub of the city's commercial activity, just as it was nearly 200 years ago."
St. Helens School District Superintendent Scot Stockwell drew smiles from the crowd by showing a PowerPoint photo of a McBride Elementary School class picture in 1976 with himself, as a then-eight-year-old, in the front row.
"When this photo was taken, 80% of our kids had parents working in the mills," Stockwell said.
He then showed a current 2019-2020 elementary school photo and explained how 75% of St. Helens schoolchildren's parents work in Portland or other cities today, noting that 20% of the students are of people of color and 17% are involved in special education curriculum.
New demographics call for new solutions, he said, such as the innovative Family Resource Center that connects schoolchildren's families with safe housing, food banks and health care.
The district is also launching the Faith Based Partnership, which provides a pathway for church members to volunteer at schools, tutor, and support parents.
What concerns Stockwell the most, he said, is how St. Helens stacks up to other school districts in the area.
"St. Helens kids are competing with other school districts that have better facilities and resources," he said.
He pointed to the St. Helens High School building that is a virtual dinosaur compared to sophisticated new high school facilities in Portland that house more specialized classrooms and career technical labs.
Stockwell pledged that voters would get good value in a top-to-bottom remodeling of the high school that the upcoming $63 million bond measure planned for the May primary election would fund.
Mayor Rick Scholl emphasized the challenges St. Helens faces with its humble tax base, yet he believes the waterfront development and more tourism could transform the city, much like lumber mills once did. He spoke of his passion and deep generational roots in the city.
"This is something we all do," he said, alluding to the presenters that day, "because we love this community."
As Scholl worked toward concluding the event, State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, fired a pointed question at Greenway, noting complaints she has received from constituents about abandoned vehicles, and asked what Greenway could do about it.
Greenway offered a lengthy response, noting he did not have authority to respond to complaints outside of the city of St. Helens. He suggested Johnson refer the complainants' calls to the Columbia County Sherriff's Office, and that a permanent solution to handling abandoned cars in unincorporated areas is more an issue for other government to address.
Scholl asked Johnson if Greenway's explanation was helpful.
Johnson replied, "I just want an answer."
Scholl also spoke of the need for government officials to be more kind toward each other.
"I do this job, humbly," he said, with emotion in his voice. "Local government can be brutal business, but it's necessary."
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