Astoria has been without a community development director for a year —a time when major projects and discussions about the city’s future loom large.
Since Kevin Cronin, the former director, left last October, City Manager Brett Estes has posted the job several times without success.
Astoria isn’t alone. A number of coastal communities have struggled to fill similar positions. Unemployment is low and the job market favors job seekers, Estes says. Other factors come into play as well.
Housing on the coast is hard to come by, as are jobs in a variety of professions. Someone who lands a planning job in Astoria might have a spouse or partner who will have a harder time finding work in their field. There’s also the question of pay.
“Salaries on the coast are competitive, but just barely so,” said Mark Barnes, the city planner for Cannon Beach.
Barnes planned to retire this month, but he will stay on through November to help ease the transition with his replacement. He told his boss about his retirement plans last December after conversations with other planning directors in the region revealed just how difficult it might be to fill his position. He wanted to give the city as much time as possible.
“I had no reason to believe we would be any different than all the other job search situations out there,” Barnes said.
Public planning jobs also can demand more than the private sector, asking planners to juggle a variety of responsibilities and attend numerous public meetings. City and county planners perform a different kind of balancing act, as requests from elected officials or citizen groups shift priorities or projects.
Still: “It’s actually been a bit perplexing,” said Lisa Phipps, with the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development.
“Certainly the communities that are putting these jobs out there right now are desirable places to be, a lot of interesting planning activity going on,” she said. “It seems like it would be very attractive both from a quality of life perspective but, especially for an urban planner, being able to work in a smaller urban area and see the benefits of your efforts, of your work.”
The state doesn’t help jurisdictions recruit for these jobs, but Phipps ends up hearing a lot from city and county leaders about their struggle to find people. In the past year, Astoria, Warrenton and Cannon Beach have all had a hard time finding someone to head their planning departments.
Cronin, Astoria’s former community development director, served as Warrenton’s interim planning director while City Manager Linda Engbretson worked with a recruitment agency to find candidates for the job. In the end, the city decided to hire Cronin.
A planning or community development director is not an entry-level position, Barnes noted. Ideal candidates need both planning and management experience.
In her talks with regional groups, Phipps has come to realize there is a pool of young planners and, at the other end, a pool of older planners who are looking at retirement. As for people with years of experience and many more years left in their career? “That middle group seems to be pretty small,” she said.
But, she added, in the end you never know what’s going on in people’s lives when you post a job.
“Maybe the person you end up with wasn’t ready at that time, but when you go out for that second or third recruitment, they’re in a different place.”
Astoria has gone through several rounds already.
Estes, who now serves as interim community development director as well as city manager, brought two candidates in for interviews earlier this year, but decided to repost the job. He was prepared to interview more people last month, but several candidates removed their names at the last minute for a variety of reasons. The city posted the job again this week.
“If you look at the City Council goals and how many of those goals are community development-focused — even the discussions of where we are headed (as a city) — it’s imperative to have the right person, the right fit,” Estes explained.
In the meantime, the Community Development Department has had to figure out how to operate shorthanded in an even busier landscape than usual.
Permit numbers are up slightly, said Nancy Ferber, Astoria’s city planner. And there have been some very big, complex projects that came in around the same time, swallowing staff time and resources — the proposal for a new Astoria Co-op Grocery in the Mill Pond neighborhood and plans for a new hotel, the Fairfield Inn and Suites, along the Columbia River.
Both projects required multiple meetings with multiple boards. Both resulted in appeals to the City Council. A new design for the hotel is scheduled to go back to the Design Review Committee for consideration at a meeting Tuesday night.
“And Fairfield isn’t done by any means,” Ferber said. “It could be appealed again.”
But even small permits can be time-consuming, requiring multiple meetings between staff and the applicants to get a proposal to a point where its ready for presentation at a meeting. Permits also come with timelines for turnaround that staff can’t just ignore no matter how many projects they have going.
In January, the City Council came up with eight goals, most of them requiring work by Community Development Department staff. At recent meetings, Estes commented that both he and the department have no capacity to take on more projects.
City Council goals, like developing a process for people to provide homestay lodging, didn’t stop when the department lost its director — but work on these requests has definitely slowed.
The city has supplemented with consultants like former Astoria planner Rosemary Johnson, or former interim community development director Mike Morgan, to work on specific projects. These are not long-term solutions, Estes said. He is looking to hire an interim planner just to help handle day-to-day needs, but the workload isn’t likely to lighten anytime soon.
The city just kicked off a long-term public process to draft policies for development in the city’s Urban Core, the last piece of an overarching Riverfront Vision Plan that guides development along the waterfront. Other potentially time-consuming projects are on the way, including a subdivision proposal in the North Tongue Point area and a grant program for facade improvements, as well as the redevelopment of a caved-in lot at Heritage Square. Developers have floated the idea of building a 90-plus hotel next to Youngs Bay on land zoned general commercial, where lodgings are permitted outright.
Even though some projects won’t trigger review by city boards, they will still take a lot of review at the staff level, Ferber said.