The blue-ribbon task force created by Salem Mayor Anna Peterson to examine issues of the city’s aging civic center and especially advise on an effective location for the Salem Police Department, has shifted course.   At the January 15 meeting, the 14-member task force, chaired by former city counselor T.J. Sullivan, concluded that the best decision would be to locate the new police facility off the Civic Campus, though still close to other city departments.

“There are two camps with regard to the police facility,” Sullivan says, “those who want a new facility and those who want it anywhere but the Civic Campus. The politically expedient thing to do then, is to find a spot off​-​campus but close… this way you get both camps involved.”

The SPD now occupies cramped, dark and seismically compromised quarters in the 41-year old City Hall complex that is dangerous to employees and residents with business there.  All involved agree that Salem Police badly needs a new facility – likely 75,000 sf – and parking for staff and customers to take them safely through the next several decades.

Mayor Anna Peterson ​has long considered the Civic Center the optimal spot, saying last May “We’ve already decided,” to keep the police station there.  Proponents​ ​like Peterson​ have argued that close quarters make government more efficient.  Different departments constantly need to communicate and police people must frequently appear at municipal court.

Critics have suggested that the hope of placing a new police facility in the Civic Center complex would be unwise, if only because it would increase the cost by many millions to finance the underground parking required there.

“An amusing take-away,” Sullivan says, “was listening to people who are philosophically opposed to big box stores with a sea of parking surrounding them, encourage a big box police facility with a sea of parking surrounding it.”

But the debate has ended, he says.  After lengthy discussion and public input on January 15, when it appeared the tide had turned, task force member and former city councilor Kasia Quilinan asked Sullivan, “You don’t want it to be built at City Hall?” and Sullivan replied. “That is correct.”

“I want it built,” Sullivan told Salem Weekly. “I see the wisdom in building it at City Hall, but I also see the path of least resistance to building it somewhere else.”

Sullivan says the entire task force has learned volumes during its service.  For example, many on the force had heard that Eugene had an excellent new facility in a stand-alone building that cost only $17 million.

“When we toured the [Eugene] facility,” Sullivan says, “their Police Chief kept using the word ‘inefficient’” because the department had to operate in a building with a poor layout because it “was the only one on the market that would hold them, size-wise.”

Quillinan says the meeting showed “a distinct shift in tone and opinion.  I believe this was due in large part to the strong public participation… The meeting before, it looked like we were headed straight for the Civic Center.”

A central location is still preferred by task force members, and Quillinan says, “I think this is a reasonable compromise, and it does force the staff to start thinking seriously about other locations.”

At the moment, there are few, if any, sites in the fairly undefined ‘central’ city core large enough to accommodate the needed facility. “That doesn’t mean that by the time we get around to doing this, there won’t be some,” Quillinan says.  “It also may mean that we will have to realize that we must go a bit further out for a good site.”

The police task force has work yet to do.  Projected costs for the discarded “Civic Center” version vary, but were often about $80 million, while projections for constructing a new Salem building off-campus are generally thought to be $30 – 40 million.

The most critical effort for the task force now may be considering whether to ask the public to pay for the new facility and Civic Center seismic upgrades with one comprehensive bond, or with two separate ones – and if the recommendation is for two, whether to ask for both at one time or in separate election cycles.  Also important is to consider whether emergency response services, “911,” should join the police facility or be kept separate.