The candidates for Astoria’s Ward 1 City Council seat have their eyes on the water.
Recent proposals for large hotels along the Columbia River and Youngs Bay have added to the sense of urgency for David Drafall and Roger Rocka, fueling their desire to run this year. They worry that the waterfront, and other aspects of the city’s growth, are slipping out of locals’ control.
Whoever wins in the November election will take over City Councilor Zetty Nemlowill’s seat on the council and represent a portion of Astoria that includes the western corner of downtown, Uniontown, some Port of Astoria property and a portion of the South Slope neighborhoods overlooking Youngs Bay.
It is a section of Astoria expected to undergo much change in the coming years as the city seeks to enhance Uniontown’s businesses and neighborhoods and reopen Bond Street to two-way traffic. It is where at least one waterfront hotel proposal, part of the Marriott chain, is inching forward.
Rocka, 78, and Drafall, 54, share similar views on what the city needs and what their role could be in shaping Astoria’s future. Both men have worked in jobs that built or have helped maintain the city’s tourist economy, but say as a city councilor their job would be to focus on what locals need and want.
Rocka is a 24-year resident of Astoria. He worked as executive director for the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce during a critical decade, 1994 to 2002, when Astoria began to change rapidly, morphing from a place where timber and salmon were the chief industries to a city dominated by tourism.
Drafall has lived in Astoria for 31 years and has worked as a hairdresser at One Six Five West Bond beauty salon for 25 years. He also does work catering and leading cruise ship visitors on tours of the city. The years spent listening to people behind the chair at the beauty salon have taught Drafall what Astorians worry about and what they desire for their city.
Though this will be Drafall’s first time running for public office, he has long been active in the community. He has been a member of the Uniontown Association for over a decade, is a member of the Finnish Brotherhood, volunteers for the Astoria Armory, reads for memorial services at Maritime Memorial Park, serves on the Lower Columbia Q Center board and participates in Astoria Pride events.
The race is Rocka’s first bid for election, as well. In addition to his time as chamber director, Rocka owns a dinner theater business in Fresno, California, serves as a board member for Coast Community Radio and was part of a group that successfully battled efforts to build a liquefied natural gas terminal and pipeline in the region. He has also served on the Oregon Travel Information Council and the Clatsop County Budget Committee.
If elected, Rocka says, because of his age, he would serve only one four-year term. Drafall, in turn, has noted that because of his age he will be able to run again and pursue long-term city goals and projects.
Rocka points to his many years of experience working in the city on complex policy issues. And, he added, “During those four years, I don’t need to worry about not offending anybody or walking on eggshells. I can just be honest.”
Drafall has lived openly as a gay man since he was honorably discharged from the Army when the military found out about his sexual orientation, he said. But this identity is not a central issue in his campaign. Representation of an often-marginalized group is important to him, but he says he is running to represent Astoria generally, and Uniontown in particular.
Since he moved to the city in his mid-20s, Drafall has watched Astoria change. Over the years, as money and resources went to the slice of town between Seventh Street and 17th Street — the historic downtown district — and tourism became the dominant industry, he believes Uniontown and many of the people who long called Astoria home were left behind. Astoria is not just the downtown core. The city stretches from Tongue Point to Smith Point, he said.
“There’s a whole city here and we’ve got to love it all or it will go away,” he said.
“When I moved to Astoria, I exhaled,” he added. “Now I’m concerned about what we’re going to hand off to our great-great grandchildren. Astoria is at a turning point.”
For him, and for Rocka, that turning point includes the increasing number of hoteliers and developers with their eyes on the waterfront. Rocka was part of the group that helped create the Astoria Riverwalk and organize one of the first big riverfront cleanup events. He has long been involved in discussions about development along the waterfront.
Neither Drafall nor Rocka says they are against development or tourism. Rocka spent years promoting the area for those very uses. They are looking for balance.
Drafall wants to make sure development is “smart and usable.”
“There’s got to be something different than hotels and drinking and pot stores,” he said.
Rocka, who is married to Astoria Planning Commissioner Jan Mitchell, thinks Astoria could become a hub for web and computer-related enterprises — what he refers to as the “next century” economy.
“The pat answer you usually get from people is they want family wage jobs and they think in terms of what we used to have here,” Rocka said.
Both men say the top priority is setting an appropriate stage with zoning that reflects local people’s wishes.
Drafall can speak from experience. The Holiday Inn Express, built in the early 2000s, cut off his own view of the Columbia River.
“As soon as it happened, we went, ‘No!’” he said. “But it’s going to happen more and more.”
Both Rocka and Drafall hope to address city zoning that, in some areas, allows hotels as an outright use and means the projects, potentially, receive no public review at all if the construction doesn’t trigger other types of scrutiny through the presence of historic landmarks or overlay zones.
Drafall believes Uniontown is where the bulk of Astoria’s future development could occur. Much of the city’s urban renewal funds are poised to go to the neighborhoods on either end of Astoria. Meanwhile, Astoria Warehousing is closing in Uniontown.
“That’s a lot of acreage,” Drafall said.
Both men are concerned about the state of the major roads running through Astoria and the aging chairwall systems that support roads in portions of downtown.
Drafall believes more could be done to enforce speeding violations and the use of compression brakes by large trucks. But Rocka is the only one proposing another look at a bypass to address Astoria’s summer traffic. A bypass could help the city deal with traffic now and avoid further traffic-related complications in the future, he said.
City and county leaders pushed for a bypass in the 1990s, and even paid for an environmental impact study. The project was included on the state’s construction schedule but was later dropped. Debate about the project revived in the early 2000s, but funding and regulatory hurdles remained — and remain today.
One of the top issues for all of the candidates running in Astoria is housing.
Drafall has watched neighborhoods disappear as people buy homes and turn them into vacation rental, Airbnb-type operations. He and Rocka say enforcement of city rules forbidding this kind of use is crucial, especially as housing for workers and lower-income residents appears to be dwindling.
Astoria allows homestay lodging, where rooms may be rented on a short-term basis, but the property owner must live in the home, too. Vacation rentals — where entire houses are rented out to tourists and the owner is absent — are illegal. Many of these illegal operations are not paying business license fees or taxes, but the Community Development Department does not have the staff to go out and enforce city laws consistently.
“Why can’t we have someone whose work is covered by the fees and fines they collect?” Rocka asked.
To Rocka, vacation rentals, tourism, housing and homelessness are all linked, each influencing the other. Creative use of tax dollars could help alleviate some of the pressure, while enforcement of city code could bring housing back to long-term renters, he said.
Rocka pushed for the early version of the state’s lodging tax program in 2003, which provides funding to tourist-related projects. Astoria already uses some of this money for maintenance of city parks, and recently raised the tax to help fund parks operations, arguing that tourists, not just locals, contribute to wear and tear.
Rocka would like to see those dollars acquire even more flexibility. Much of the city’s growing expenses are related to tourism, he said.
Ultimately, neither man has a solution for the housing issues or increased levels of homelessness. Like Astoria’s three mayoral candidates, the two men believe the issues require creative solutions.
It’s a bigger problem than Astoria, they both say.
“We give them food, we give them shelter, but we don’t have the social services to help them,” Drafall said of the homeless.
“I wish I had an answer,” Rocka said. “I don’t.”
He does think the city could do more to work with people who own vacant buildings and ask: What would it take for you to put this property on the market for workforce housing? Uniontown has a number of larger, older buildings — some that escaped Astoria’s infamous fires. This is important, but complicated, infrastructure, Rocka and Drafall said.
“Somehow, with older districts, we need to find a way to be more flexible,” Rocka said.
For Drafall, it comes back to zoning. Could the city open up existing properties for higher-density housing?
“The homes that were built here, yeah, they need a lot of work, but they were well-built,” he said. “They’re still standing.”