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Eugene officials debate downtown project.

Byline: Whitney Malkin The Register-Guard

More than 60 Eugene residents gathered Wednesday night as two city officials, divided about the path of future downtown expansion, squared off in the first of a series of town hall debates.

Citizens will get their chance to weigh in on the issue in the November special election, voting on whether to give the City Council permission to increase the city's urban renewal plan spending limit by $40 million to complete downtown redevelopment. The measure also would extend the length of the downtown urban renewal district for six more years, until 2030.

The council could use the $40 million to help pay for a redevelopment project in a two-block area of West Broadway, in the heart of downtown.

Suggested development for the area includes condos, a four-screen movie theater, restaurants, national and regional retail businesses, and a grocery store.

The current plan is a modified version that combined the work of two Portland developers tentatively selected by the City Council to redevelop the area.

On Wednesday, Mayor Kitty Piercy, a strong advocate of the plan, and City Councilor Bonny Bettman, a vocal opponent, sat down to discuss the issue, with their talk broadcast live on KOPT 1600 AM.

They were joined by panelists David Monk, a member of Taxpayers for Sensible Downtown Development, which opposes the measure, and Greg Mclauchlan, an advocate for the plan who served on the West Broadway Advisory Council, as well as multiple downtown business owners.

The project's funding proved to be a widely controversial topic as panelists debated where the $40 million from the urban renewal fund would come from, how much would be used and who would be affected.

According to Piercy, the $40 million would come from property tax revenue of area businesses and would be used to revitalize the area.

"The urban renewal fund has been used to build things in this community such as the Hult Center and our new library," she said. "It's been used to grow and make things happen in our community."

But Bettman had other concerns, saying the $40 million would divert money from local schools and isn't an accurate representation of total costs. She says the the project would cost an additional $29 million that would be covered by tax breaks, existing funding and other sources.

If the measure is approved, a portion of property taxes collected in the downtown urban renewal district that otherwise would be available to the city's general fund, schools and the county would instead be dedicated to the renewal district.

Calling spending for the project "excessive," Bettman says the project would lead to "a lifestyle mall with a Whole Foods-type grocery chain."

Concerned more with housing, she says a better plan would be to increase housing development and to develop a plan "using the money we have."

However, Piercy said the plan, one of the largest ever proposed in Eugene, would provide the city with "the type of downtown we've been waiting for."

"Sometimes you have to invest in yourself, and you have have to have some vision," she said. "People should vote for this not for what developers want, but for Eugene."

Part of that plan includes displacing local businesses during construction, something that Bettman says could be treacherous.

"There are those who are going to be unable to afford the rent after the project is complete," she said. "They aren't going to be able to come back."

But some business owners, such as Betty Snowden, say they think the revitalization project is a necessary step for the downtown area.

"I have been a business owner for over 20 years," she said. "There is a problem down there ... and I know this will fix it."

Snowden's sentiments where echoed by Piercy, who urged audience members to remember that passing the ballot measure wouldn't actually approve a plan but simply give the City Council a tool to use.

"This is an urban renewal funding tool," she said. "You can tell us what to use the tool for, but this will simply make it available."

Ballots will be available starting Oct. 19.
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Title Annotation:Government; Mayor Kitty Piercy says the plan will rejuvenate the city; Councilor Bonny Bettman contends it would cost too much
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 4, 2007
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