At a last month's meeting of the Scappoose/St. Helens Chamber of Commerce, St. Helens city officials presented the audience with the details of a Strategic Plan adopted in December last year.

In its first significant steps toward efforts to better position the city to meet the needs of a booming and more diverse population, City Administrator Brian Little introduced plans that include enhancing local business districts and fostering economic development opportunities.

The St. Helens Strategic Plan identifies projects for nine major focus areas officials plan to undertake over the next two years. The goal is to enhance St. Helens' livability for a population that has nearly doubled over 20 years to more than 11,300 in 2004, the most recent year for which population figures are available.

Little said the Strategic Plan will guide the city in addressing local government's shortcomings identified through surveys of local residents.

While survey respondents gave the city high marks for day-to-day operation of municipal services, a lack of leadership and vision for the future was cited as the area of greatest concern.

"They were telling us that the city wasn't positioning itself well for future growth," Little told Coast River Business Journal.

The nine "strategic focus areas" the plan identifies include government structure and organization, communications, inter-agency relationships, economic development, customer service, visual appearance, business development, municipal asset base and financial management.

The first major change implemented as part of this Strategic Plan has been to streamline the operations of city government by giving the city administrator direct supervision over nearly every municipal department, similar to the duties of a city manager.

Under the City Charter, St. Helens historically has had a strong city council form of government; each council member had oversight over a specific city department, such as police or land-use planning. Under the new organizational structure, all department heads, except for the city attorney and municipal judge, report directly to the city administrator. The attorney and municipal judge will continue to report to the city council.

Little said the new organizational system is meant to make city operations more businesslike.

Meanwhile, the role of city council members, all of whom are volunteers, will become more focused on developing long-range goals, Little said.

Although the new system was implemented in May, the change will require approval by St. Helens voters to amend the City Charter.

The city has made headway on several other "strategic focus areas" as well, including the hiring of a part-time director to promote local tourism, developing better communication links with other local governmental agencies and improving city employees' customer service skills.

In the coming months, Little said the city hopes to develop plans for energizing the city's three business districts and upgrading the appearance of some older neighborhoods.

The city also hopes to work with other local governmental entities in a coordinated economic development strategy to promote job growth in Columbia County.

And the city plans a major effort to find ways to better communicate with its citizens.

Once a largely close-knit town, Little said, St. Helens has changed to a largely bedroom community, where a good segment of the population spends the majority of its time in the Portland metropolitan area, where they work, shop and take advantage of the large variety of restaurants, recreation and entertainment venues a large city has to offer.

"They only come home to St. Helens to sleep," the city administrator said. "It's difficult to communicate effectively" when residents have such limited ties to the community.

At the May 18 presentation State Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) was so impressed with St. Helens' efforts that she said she would suggest that the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department (OECDD) require communities to have a strategic plan before they would be considered for grant or loan funds for local community projects.

Johnson, a non-voting member of the committee that oversees the OECDD, said too often she sees communities request state aid for projects that are not well thought out or will have little impact on local citizens.

"Why shouldn't (cities) be rewarded for going through a disciplined exercise that encompasses a long-range strategy for their community?" she asked.

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