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Urban renewal districts are about increasing property values through eliminating blight.

For some URDs, such as the three in Lebanon, job creation is the No. 1 focus.

In Albany, the Central Albany Revitalization Area has targeted improving the downtown business area and expanding housing opportunities in the core section of the city.

Jobs, while a welcome component of that, have not been the priority, and nobody has tracked job growth within CARA since its inception in August 2001.

So if you want to find out how many jobs have been created or retained in the renewal district’s first decade, a firm number will evade you.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t try. And that’s exactly  what the Democrat-Herald set out to do for this story.

Tracking changes

The city didn’t start keeping numbers until 2006, when Kate Porsche came on as urban renewal manager. She began tracking creation of jobs in the CARA district in the “economic development” category: industrial, traded-sector or manufacturing.

To that end, she’s calculated 101 such new jobs since CARA’s inception: three at Calapooia Brewing, five at Connaghan Enterprises (Crabtree Automotive), 15 at CADD Connection, 35 at Hydration Technologies Inc. and 43 at Viper Northwest.

The figures don’t include retail or service jobs, or any of the construction jobs that came about through the 131 projects funded so far through the urban renewal district.

The city wants to do a better job of tracking jobs created or retained through the revitalization effort in the future, possibly by requiring applicants to provide more specific information up front and then survey completed projects, Porsche said. If that change is adopted, tracking may start as soon as this spring.

Porsche said her office also is looking at the possibility of retroactively totaling all new jobs within the district since its creation.

But how do you calculate employment figures if a business replaced one that employed the same number of people, or at one time perhaps had even more?

What if the newer business already existed, but moved to that location from an area of Albany not covered by the district?

Or what if the business hired more people initially, but then had to lay them off because of economic circumstances unrelated to the urban renewal money?

Janet Steele, president of the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber keeps no statistics on job growth in the CARA district. But as far as she can tell, urban renewal efforts haven’t prompted a huge upswing in employment, at least in terms of a net gain directly related to the district.

“With a few exceptions, CARA hasn’t generated a lot of jobs. I think I can say that safely,” she said.

Steele pointed out that Linn County plans to move its family health offices this summer to the former Weyerhaeuser regional office at 2730 Pacific Blvd. S.E. to consolidate services. That will remove several dozen employees from the downtown core, but the reduced job figures have nothing to do with CARA.

Businesses come and go, but the overall economy is usually a deciding factor, Steele said. Prime examples include CARA’s contributions toward renovation of the former J.C. Penney building on First Avenue and construction of the four-story riverfront building known as the Wheelhouse. Both buildings remain largely unoccupied.

“J.C. Penney and the Wheelhouse are wonderful opportunities for new businesses to go in there, but it hasn’t happened yet,” Steele said.

“Alleviating blight and looking better, more attractive — that has happened,” she added. “I don’t want to discount that. But as far as a huge increase in jobs, that hasn’t happened.”

Interpreting the figures

Oscar Hult, executive director of the Albany Downtown Association, said the ADA has been keeping track of jobs in the main downtown district, but only since 2010, and only for a small portion of the CARA boundaries (Water Street to Third Avenue and Calapooia to Baker streets; a total of 18 blocks).

The agency is now planning a more thorough, annual survey of jobs lost and gained for the entire downtown, Hult said. “We just want to know whether or not downtown’s truly becoming more viable.”

Since 2010, he said, the 18-block area has gained 161 jobs and lost 71.5, for a net gain of 89.5.

How much of that is because of the urban renewal district, however, is impossible to say.

Figuring out if a particular business within the district has added or subtracted employees since CARA’s creation is much easier, but again, the change can’t necessarily be attributed to urban renewal.

Take Clemenza’s and First Burger, for example. The two downtown restaurants employ between eight and a dozen people each. They replaced Olde Towne Cafe and Mary Anna Bakery, respectively, each of which had just a pair of employees.

Both restaurants are in buildings that received CARA funding, although not necessarily specifically for restaurant work.

Clemenza’s is housed in a building owned by Thad Ollivetti and was part of an exterior alterations project that also took in the business next door, Blush Salon. In all, Ollivetti received two rounds of CARA funding for the exteriors of those two addresses: $41,101 and $46,776.

At First Burger, building owner Skip Throop received $15,000 for the venting that made a restaurant possible. Bamboo Diner was the first restaurant effort there.

Two businesses within the district — Viper Northwest and Hydration Technology Innovations — are adamant that urban renewal money played a role in convincing them to stay in town.

Guy DeLude, president and chief executive officer of Viper Northwest Inc., said he had been looking very hard at relocating his precision machining and custom fabrication company to Tualatin to be nearer its customer base. But the $120,000 from CARA to expand the existing Jackson Street plant changed his mind.

“We would have been going to do it anyway, but we wouldn’t have been doing it in Albany,” he said.  

A move would have been expensive, DeLude acknowledged, but not as much as staying would have been. CARA, he said, essentially met the business halfway.

Viper Northwest employed 35 people at the time and now is pushing 80, DeLude said. The average wage and benefits package exceeds $50,000.

None of those jobs would have been around without the CARA package, DeLude said. “We were probably out of here.”

Hydration Technology Innovations has two locations, one on Ferry Street and one on Industrial Way. It received $162,270 in urban renewal funds to help restore infrastructure that had been damaged in a fire.

Keith Lampi, vice president of operations, said his company also was looking at leaving. Without the cash infusion, he said, “There’s a good chance we would have had to have move, maybe out of this area. Those funds definitely helped keep us here.”

Lampi said of the 35 jobs HTI has added since 2008, some command higher salaries because they were brought in to run higher-level equipment, which the new infrastructure made possible to purchase.

He stressed that he wouldn’t necessarily say the CARA cash led to those jobs, but it was a factor in the decision to stay, which kept the jobs locally accessible.

Some direct results

In the restaurant sector, at least one new establishment came downtown specifically thanks to CARA aid, and led to a net gain of 16 jobs, including its two co-owners.

Co-owner Mike Brown of Vault 244 employs 17 people, up from the one person who worked in the structure when it was known as Arlene’s Victorian Rose, an antique shop. He said if it hadn’t been for the $100,000, given in two rounds of CARA funding for wiring, plumbing and structural repairs, he wouldn’t have even looked at the building at 244 First Ave.

“The cost to put in a restaurant from scratch is really expensive, let alone in a building from 1897,” he said. “The little bit of funds CARA kicked in was just enough to push us to make the decision to go ahead and go for it.”

Later, the CARA-funded upgrades to Broadalbin Street from First to Second avenues — known as the Broadalbin Promenade — allowed Vault 244 to add outdoor seating during the summer.

Brown said he’s thinking about expanding his bistro still more, but not if the urban renewal district goes away.

“People are under the assumption that all this work would be done without CARA ... and you’re taking money away from the taxpayers,” he said. “But the reality is, in our case, this wouldn’t have been done without CARA’s nudge.”

Seth Fortier of Fortier Chiropractic expanded his business in 2011. He added 11 new jobs, but said those were always in the plan and would have been there with or without the $5,000 CARA allocated for energy-efficient windows.

However, Fortier and other local business owners pointed out that the construction jobs linked to CARA-related work have an effect on the local economy, too.

 “We made it a point to use local craftsmen and contractors,” Fortier said of his $250,000 remodel at 220 Ellsworth St. S.W. “A big part of it is supporting the community.”

David Johnson, who unveiled his $7 million Wheelhouse project in 2010, said he couldn’t say for sure how many people were involved at his work site, but labor brought in $3.5 million to the local economy.

“Our architect, (Don Johnson of DJ Architecture, no relation), was from Albany and our lead contractor (T. Gerding Construction) was from Corvallis,” he said. “We kept the money right here.”

Marc Manley, who sank his life savings into refurbishing the Flinn Block and the Ames Building on First Avenue, said people often overlook the importance of those construction jobs.

“A lot of local and private money is helping soften the recession for a lot of businesses,” Manley said. “Because of construction, many contractors and suppliers have survived during some tough times.”

According to Rick Pyburn of Pyburn & Sons Construction in Albany, Manley was all about keeping the work close to home.

“Marc likes to use local contractors. He makes a point of that,” Pyburn said. “We only had two or four people at a time but there were always other subs on the job, too. And it gave our company great visibility.”

Manley said his vision was about improving Albany. That included trying to use the local suppliers.

“If I could get the lumber I needed down the street at Parr Lumber, then I got it there,” he said.

Pat O’Connor of Worksource Oregon and the Oregon Employment Department, stationed in Albany, said anecdotes from individual businesses are about the only way to get a handle on whether the job count in a particular district has gone north or south.

That said, he added, “The real value for jobs is that improved neighborhoods and commercial properties attract business. I think in that respect, the real question is what would have happened to business and jobs if nothing had been done?”

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Steve Lathrop is the business reporter for the Albany Democrat-Herald. He can be reached at 541-812-6076 or by email at steve.lathrop@lee.net.

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