By Nathalie Hardy • Columnist • 

Split council backs rate hike for MDA

Subject to final ratification at the council’s June 11 meeting, because unanimity is required on first reading of a new measure, the reauthorization includes a 7.14 increase in the assessment on property owners. Collected by the city, the assessment raises about $55,000 a year as a pass-through for the McMinnville Downtown Association, accounting for about 20 percent of its funding.

The increase, the first the agency had sought in six years, triggered some opposition.

Councilor Alan Ruden said he thought the McMinnville Downtown Association was “outstanding.” But he said he cringed when he heard the word “increase.”

“Is it really called for right now?” he asked. “Is it really substantiated?”

The agency argued it was, but Ruden remained skeptical. In the end, he was joined by Councilor Kevin Jeffries in voting no.

Previous renewals breezed through on rapid and unanimous votes, with little discussion.

The ground shifted this year when Oregon Mutual Insurance, the district’s largest property owner, objected in a sharply worded response. Signed by CEO Brian Steffel, it took particular aim at the rate hike, which is projected all told to raise an additional $4,000 from downtown property owners.

City Attorney Candace Haines said the letter did not meet legal qualifications for treatment as a formal objection. However, it served to catch the attention of all concerned, triggering an extended discussion. 

In the letter, Steffel complained, “Ask downtown businesses if they have been able to pass on a 7 percent increase in pricing to their customers without adverse consequences. At OMI, our revenue declined 1.5 percent last year, we laid off a dozen employees and we went without salary increases.”

He argued, “Public entities too often succumb to the belief businesses have enough flex, resiliency and resources to fund ever-increasing fiancial demands. As I write this, the state Legislature is considering yet another tax increase on business with a familiar “we need it for the schools” justification.”

While acknowledging, “The MDA has a proud history,” Steffel ended by saying, “I wonder if the MDA has outlived its purpose and utility.”

MDA supporters Walt Gowell,  Scott Cunningham, Jeb Bladine and Cassie Sollars countered by citing the MDA’s mission and accomplishments. They said those achievements include significantly reducing vacancies in the downtown corridor, attracting people to the area by creating re-curring events and helping turn McMinnville’s downtown into a recognized role model for downtowns around the state and even the nation.

Gowell, partner in a law firm that has been staunchly supportive, said he considered the assessment an ongoing obligation to support the “livability and outstanding character of McMinnville’s downtown.” He cited the recent UFO Festival as an example of the MDA’s success in drawing people to the city’s downtown core.

“The vitality and vibrancy of downtown McMinnville represents something phenomenal and the MDA deserves credit for those repeat performances,” he said.

Cunningham, owner of the Community Plate and Walnut City Kitchen restaurants and member of the MDA board, said the board decision on the increase was unanimous.

He said the board gave due consideration to the current economic climate. However, he said the rising cost of doing business, and the fact it would be three years before the agency had another opportunity, confirmed the decision.

“The downtown is the reason I came here and fell in love with this town,” Cunningham said.

He said his restaurants employ 23 people who rely on the vitality of McMinnville’s downtown core. He termed the increase a necessary investment in the community to continue building on what it has already been created.

Councilor Scott Hill applauded Cunningham’s “articulate support to continue a legacy started many years ago,” saying, “It is renewing to me that the passion is as strong in you as it is in Walt and Jeb, two founders.”

Steve Patterson, who represented OMI at the session, said Steffel’s letter was originally intended strictly as an internal communication to the MDA. He said the company was disappointed that a private letter had been passed on to the city, introduced into the public record and made the basis of “testimony and acrimony.”

Patterson said he seconded the testimonials offered on MDA’s positive impact in creating a downtown capable of attracting people to the area. “I’m one of the people who came here, saw Turkey Rama and said, ‘This is where I want my family to be,’” said Patterson, who has a long history of involvement with the chamber of commerce.

But he said he was concerned about the rising assessment. He said he was under the impression the MDA was in the process of weaning itself from that means of support.

Over time, he said, the assessment on downtown property owners like OMI has gone from accounting for 70 percent of MDA’s overall budget to accountying for only 20 percent. “Is there a plan for it to go to zero?” he asked.

Personally, he said, he would support the organization voluntarily, without being compelled to do so through a property assessment administered by the city. After all, he said, “Our people shop downtown, we eat downtown, we love downtown and we support the downtown.”

Patterson also raised a communications complaint that appeared to resonate. He said the rate hike letter represented the first contact OMI had received from the MDA in “quite a while.”

Jeffries agreed, citing conversations with downtown proprietors.

He said Patterson’s comments “echoed the feelings I’ve heard from other businesses. He said, “If this is the perspective of the single largest contributor, what about the smallest? Is their voice being heard?”

Sollars, newly appointed to the MDA helm after many years with the News-Register, defended the rate hike.

She said two full-time people are doing the work of three, and are making every effort to keep costs down. She said much of the work would otherwise fall to the city, whose salary and benefit structure would make it more costly.

But Sollars acknowledged the association’s communication and outreach with its 285 members needs attention. “We promise that will improve,” she told Patterson.

Bladine, longtime News-Register publisher and one of MDA’s founding members, echoed that. He also addressed another issue raised by Steffel — how the MDA’s longstanding role might be affected as the city pursues development of an urban renewal district and adoption of a room tax dedicated largely to tourism promotion.

“I want to register one concern going forward regarding the clarity of MDA’s mission,” Bladine said. “For the general public, for all of us out there, we need to have clarity as the city goes forward with all these plans.”

“There is a tremendous amount of passion here,” said Councilor Kellie Menke. “This is an issue with communication that needs to be resolved and I believe it will be resolved.”

City Manager Kent Taylor took the same tack, saying he was actually encouraged by the lively and lengthy exchange. He said it demonstrated the passion the community holds for its downtown.

He termed the MDA “one of the most accountable and accessible organizations I’ve worked with in 40 years” and its advocates “some of the best people in McMinnville at heart.” He said, “We are all trying to get to the same place.”

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