Mayor Chuck Bennett gave a wonderfully upbeat State of the City speech on March 28th. He shared “the punchline” at the beginning of his speech when he said, “This has been a very exciting, eventful and successful year.” Salem, he said, is “undergoing a makeover.”
We agree. And it is great to see, and the Mayor and the City Council and City staff should be given a lot of credit for what is happening.
The City Council and the much of the city staff have had a makeover too, which might explain a lot of the success we are seeing.
In 2017 we replaced our Mayor and half of the City Council. All of the new Councilors were supported by Progressive Salem, a political organization formed following the election of progressive Councilor Tom Andersen in 2014 to try and give Andersen some allies to move the Council in a more progressive direction. The success of Progressive Salem in electing Cara Kaser, Sally Cook, and Matt Ausec to the Council in 2016 and Chris Hoy in 2017, replacing the ousted Daniel Benjamin, was a remarkable achievement that also speaks to the progressive direction that the electorate in Salem seems to be taking.
Our still relatively new City Manager Steve Powers is to be commended for his makeover efforts, the centerpiece of which is the new City strategic planning process that he initiated, which was recently completed. The new City strategic plan will bring much needed focus and direction for the Council in tackling the highest priority goals for the City. Among those goals are addressing our homelessness crisis, providing more affordable housing, working with Cherriots to improve our woeful transit system, and creating a Climate Action Plan for Salem.
Mayor Bennett seems to have experienced his own makeover. For nearly a decade he represented Ward 1 as a City Councilor on what was a stodgy, ineffective, conservative City Council that took nearly all its cues from the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce. Now that the Chamber is no longer in charge, he seems to have accepted the new, more progressive directions voters are calling for in electing a progressive City Council. He and the progressive majority seem to be working fairly well together, and we hope to see this continue.
The Mayor’s State of the City speech was mostly a long list of laudable accomplishments for the city. He reported that our Homeless Rental Assistance Program appears to be making slow, but steady progress. A new Sobering Center will open soon. We now have a Traffic Congestion Task Force that represents a rejection of the unaffordable, pie-in-the-sky Salem River Crossing that previous Councils have pursued, in favor of more achievable and affordable solutions to ease peak hour congestion.
The Mayor reported that over 500 building permits were issued in the past year for new commercial development and for much needed multi-family housing. The two bond measures voters passed in 2017 will build a long-overdue new police facility and retrofit and improve our downtown library. Downtown Salem is on the verge of a renaissance with an innovative streetscape plan in the works and lots of new housing units. Riverfront Park and other city parks are adding amenities and are being connected by new bike and pedestrian trails.
These are only the highlights of the Mayor’s buoyant speech. When the daily news from our nation’s Capital is an unrelenting series of ignorant missteps, scandals and policy disasters, it really helps to raise our spirits to hear that things are going so well in our state capital which we call home.
Do we not still face difficult problems? Sure we do. The Mayor is very concerned about what the Army Corps of Engineers might be planning that could harm our Santiam River water supply. But listening to the Mayor’s speech and seeing him flanked at the head table by a very capable new City Council gives us confidence that Salem’s makeover will continue, at least for the foreseeable future.