Editorial: Urban renewal district has potential to be key for downtown

Based on past experience with urban renewal districts, city officials see a new downtown URD as an opportunity to continue improving the downtown core. 

Mayor Paul Aziz, at the Nov. 7 City Council meeting (see page 8), described dramatic and positive changes in the area over the past two decades, and city councilors, obviously, believe a URD will keep that momentum going. 

We hope they’re right. They’ve got good reason to think so. URDs have been a key part of Lebanon’s success in economic development.

During the City Council portion of the candidates forum held by the Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 25, the general vibe was one of happy, smooth sailing, and for good reason. 

Lebanon has some problems, but the community has come up with solutions to a lot of the issues that other local towns are still wrestling with. 

The two looming local issues – the westside interceptor wastewater connector and the wetlands that hinder further development, dominated most of the troubleshooting portion of the forum, but there was also talk of what needs to be done to fix the downtown. 

There’s no question that things are improving in Lebanon’s downtown, but there still are too many empty or dilapidated storefronts and the pace of revitalization hasn’t matched, yet, what’s been achieved in other parts of town. 

As an aside, to help counter possible confusion, in general, a URD accomplishes its goals without increasing property tax rates. Property taxes increase anyway as property values increase. A URD diverts those increases from existing taxing districts to the URD and its projects. 

This URD, as an effect of general obligation bonds, will cause a miniscule tax increase that will cost downtown property owners a grand total of $3.33 per $100,000 of assessed value over an 11-year term, raising funds that can’t exceed $3.6 million over that span.

Fixing up downtown is important, not only to politicians and  staff in City Hall, but to the people. 

That’s pretty clear from the  Lebanon 2040 Vision and Community Strategic Action Plan developed two years ago with considerable input from citizens. 

One focus of the 2040 Plan is to establish the downtown as the “Heart of the Community,” the recognized center of Lebanon where people gather to “celebrate and connect.” 

Correlating goals include focus areas for arts and culture. 

Anyone who’s spent much time downtown on summer evenings has seen some of this play out in Strawberry Park and some of the new breweries and other businesses that have popped up along Main Street in particular. 

This is what we’re talking about and it’s working. 

People are gathering and enjoying community and spending money and generally responding to the early implementation of some of the 2040 Plan’s goals. 

According to the report presented to the council by city staff on Nov. 8, interviews with downtown property owners and occupants apparently produced quite positive support for the idea of establishing this renewal district. 

What’s been accomplished is impressive, but there’s more to come and perhaps this URD will provide what is needed to climb that mountain. 

This one likely won’t deliver the cash that Lebanon’s three previous URDs have, largely because it’s a lot smaller – 51.3 acres in the downtown core area. 

But the stated goals, if accomplished, will certainly provide a more welcoming environment for both prospective new businesses and for customers: street improvements, street furniture, bike racks, signage, restoration of historic buildings in the downtown area, development of urban residential units, etc.  

Ambitious, but doable with the right resources. 

Lebanon has a track record of success in using URDs to make economic development happen, so we’ll all be eager to see how this one pays off.