I was often asked one question when I served as the community development director at the city of Astoria. “What’s your vision for the city?” This question has always perplexed me. In reality, it’s never up to one person or a small group to create one vision for an entire city.
To deflect the question, I had a somewhat canned response along the lines of how the comprehensive plan outlines a 20-year horizon for growth management or a de facto retort about how the mayor and City Council set the vision and goals, and staff just focuses on implementation. I couldn’t honestly answer the question because I never felt I had the authority or the gumption to articulate my vision.
How things have changed! I’m taking the opportunity now, without a title hanging over my head, or direct responsibility, other than as a private citizen who loves Astoria and is committed to ensure a bright future and prosperity for the next generation, including my children. This is one person’s vision that will hopefully facilitate a communitywide conversation.
I call my vision the 3 E’s: entrepreneurism, empowerment and education.
This vision is centered around achieving three objectives:
• helping our youth succeed;
• bridging local government with community-based solutions;
• and creating more wealth for individuals and families to succeed in a global economy.
Entrepreneurism: Implement Advance Astoria, a five-year action plan for economic development. Astoria needs to expand and diversify its economy to complement the tourism industry and provide better paying jobs that are less dependent on the boom and bust real estate cycle and consumer-based spending habits. The City Council deserves credit for establishing the goal for sustainable economic development in 2015 and for adoption of the strategy in July.
However, it’s time to move forward and sustain the momentum created through Advance Astoria and prioritize some key actions that are clearly delineated in the strategy. For example, local entrepreneurs have wanted a one-stop, go-to commercial kitchen to experiment with new recipes and develop food and beverage products that have become a hallmark in Astoria. The city can work with the Oregon State University Seafood Lab to upgrade an existing, underutilized kitchen if it can find a partner to help schedule and operate the kitchen. This is also a recruitment tool to attract new entrepreneurs who want to relocate and invest in our area.
Empowerment: Establish a John Jacob Astor Volunteer Day for Astoria. Reading “Astoria” by Peter Stark should be required reading for Astoria citizenship. It’s a fascinating read on the life of amazing German-American pioneer John Jacob Astor. Astoria should honor its founder by celebrating his birthday (July 17) or the inception of its founding in 1811. The way to honor Astor, and, more importantly, our citizenship, is to have a citywide volunteer day dedicated each year. This could coincide with Regatta week or with predesignated national days of service. Everyone can pitch in and focus on specific projects that benefit all Astorians, such as improving our wonderful parks, eradicating invasive plants in our forgotten city-owned open spaces, creating temporary art installations, or working with local nonprofits on completing their proverbial to-do lists. A small army of dedicated volunteers can get a lot done in a day’s work. It instills a common value of shared sacrifice and a greater good of community-based service learning in our youth, and it’s a chance to get to know your neighbors. As a former two-term AmeriCorps volunteer and former board member of Oregon Volunteers!, I get the importance of volunteerism and the value it brings to the table, so let’s recognize the power it can have in our community.
Education: Incubate an Early Learning Initiative to educate all preschool children entering Kindergarten by 2020. Mounting peer reviewed evidence has demonstrated that cities who educate their children at the preschool age are proven to be better prepared to enter school, ready to learn and have less behavioral issues. This has a ripple effect on our criminal justice system and creates a culture of learning from the beginning. Under this program, preschool would be free for all 3 and 4 year olds and would provide funding for new centers to open that would complement our existing child development center network that have long waiting lists. If a local funding source can be secured, it would be matched with existing state and federal dollars. This program dovetails with the Way to Wellville initiative and others that are dedicated to better public health, education and workforce development outcomes.
After reading my vision you might have noticed it has nothing to do with land use planning, density, or zoning. That’s the point. Traditional planning approaches for our city are still an important aspect of city government, but the time to act is now by implementing key actions that will have the biggest impact on our youth and our city for generations to come. Community development needs to be broadly defined in order to create new public-private partnerships that are proactive and responsive to a global economy. Cities that continuously innovate are the ones that will be poised for economic prosperity and sustainable growth.
This vision may not be bold enough for some but it’s attainable, financially feasible and bipartisan in nature, which is a hard thing to find these days. To be competitive in a global economy, to empower local neighborhoods and accomplish policy objectives with limited resources, the city needs a new model of doing business to be successful. With a focus on entrepreneurism, empowerment and education, the city can forge a new path while still respecting its rich history and unique culture.
Kevin Cronin is Astoria’s former community development director.