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Sweet Home city manager hopefuls make public debut

By Benny Westcott
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

About two dozen people attended a Wednesday, Aug. 10, meet-and-greet with the two Sweet Home city manager candidates at City Hall.

Kelcey Young and Blair Larsen each gave 10-minute presentations addressing areas of economic development opportunities and challenges. The pair also considered potential changes for the city.

A question-and-answer session followed.

Young, who presented first, is currently the finance director for the city of Clearlake, Calif., a position she’s held for a year. She graduated from California State University Humboldt in 2002 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities. In 2006, she earned a master’s degree in social science (environment and community) from Humboldt as well as an environmental planning certificate from Rutgers University.

She was a freelance photographer in the greater Seattle area from 2008 to 2013, then for Bellevue College in Washington, where she worked with parks and recreation, art and art walks before the college moved her to procurement.

“Unfortunately, that took me away from the art side, which I absolutely loved,” she said. “However, I found a new love for procurements and contracts and so forth.”

Kelcey Young

That passion sent her to San Antonio, Texas, where she became a contract administrator and contract manager for the city, which had both a $560 million and $850 million bond. Many projects commenced, including a new city hall, arena, stormwater, roads and other infrastructure.

“I was able to work with all of the bond programs,” she recalled.

Young was then asked to travel to Dallas, Texas, to help with some of its compliance issues. She served there as the city’s assistant director of procurement operations. She noted that the city had a few grants it had to return, as well as a “huge billion-dollar bond project.”

Upon arriving, she developed a contracting program and compliance system and trained the staff to use it.

“I got to be involved in school districts, parks, nonprofits and lots of development projects, both in San Antonio and in Dallas,” she said.

In her current role as Clearlake’s finance director, Young has, in addition to rolling out the budget and handling payroll, worked on various development opportunities and business licenses as well as overseen emergency management. In 2011, she received a Federal Emergency Management Agency Professional Development Series certification, then a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt business certification in 2017.

She sees much potential in the city of Sweet Home.

“(It’s) absolutely blown me away,” she said. “It vastly exceeded my expectations. I was very, very pleasantly surprised coming in here. Having read some of the things on the Internet, I did not picture it as phenomenal as it is. Trying to showcase that and share that with surrounding areas – and with areas outside of Oregon too – can start bringing in some people who want to celebrate how wonderful Sweet Home is.

“It has absolutely beautiful scenery. The lake, the river and all those various pieces. And the fact that you have housing that’s coming forward is amazing. There’s such a housing shortage right now, but you already have new development and existing homes that are beautiful, and you have the opportunity to continue to build that housing if you wish to.”

She also found the area affordable and charming.

“You have a very strong sense of community and that small-town feel,” she said. “COVID has changed a lot of people. A lot of us, myself included, are now looking for something that Sweet Home has to offer, which is that feeling of community and that feeling of nature.

“You’re not going to be looking for how you can have economic development, because it’s going to come here. You have all the signs that I’ve seen in multiple cities. You have everything looking like it’s just about to start exploding. So the question that I see more is, ‘What do you want that economic development to look like? And how do you want to develop that moving forward?'”

An important part of that answer, according to Young, involves strengthening infrastructure. She emphasized putting energy into finishing some of the town’s streets, especially in the Main Street corridor. She also suggested “P3s,” or public-private partnerships. Increasing safety was also essential.

“There’s definitely a perception, at least on the Internet and some of the other things that I’ve read, that safety is a little bit of a concern here,” she said, although she added, “It doesn’t seem to be as valid. It seems to be a little bit more of a perception.”

Additionally, she wanted to improve overall perception of the town, strengthen code enforcement and develop a public relations plan and strategic growth initiative.

Sweet Home City Manager candidate Kelcey Young, currently finance director for the city of Clearlake in California, addresses attendees at a candidate Meet and Greet event at City Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 10.

“You’re going to grow if you want to,” Young said. “Sweet Home is poised perfectly for additional infrastructure and development. So starting now to make sure you’re determining what you want that to look like is crucial to preserving the charm and the real feel that Sweet Home has.”

She touted her ability to obtain grants, citing a 90% success rate.

“I’m very comfortable with knowing what they’re looking for and the various ways that they could support Sweet Home,” she said.

Young suggested the city apply for Reconnecting Communities, Safe Streets and Safe Communities Act grants, which, she said, “can start really escalating that infrastructure pretty quickly.” She also mentioned smaller grants, for economic development and revitalization.

“Some of these can help to freshen downtown, as well as possibly funding a business incubator, or something along those lines to really start new entrepreneurs,” she said.

She also noted that additional grants increase code enforcement, explaining that Clearlake ended up funding its own code enforcement program that way.

“(It) allowed us to start doing abatements and additional things that really helped turn around some of the areas,” she said.

Regarding commercial development, Young said, “It would be very easy, I think, to get something like a Ross (Dress for Less) or a TJ Maxx. I’ve actually talked to a couple of developers and they are looking for various places like this. And, having something like a Ross or TJ Maxx, we could ask for additional infrastructure support. It’s not uncommon to ask a developer to do additional road or park improvements, or even to provide retail space for smaller businesses.

“If you all could have a hotel closer to the lake or on the old mill property (the city-owned 230-acre property directly north of 24th Avenue and south of the Santiam River, also known as the ‘Quarry Park property’), maybe even a resort with a spa or something, I know a lot of people would probably flock to it.

“The old mill property is one of the most amazing properties I have seen, and I’ve seen a lot of property in a lot of different states at this point. It’s gorgeous. And the opportunity that you have is to make it whatever it is that you all want it to be. It has the possibility to really draw in both visitors and people who want to make Sweet Home home.”

Considering a plan for the property, she said, “I think it would be nice to bring in most of the key stakeholders, see what type of project you want to look at, and then send out a call and see what type of developers would be interested, and what new ideas they could also bring to the table. You’ve already done some of that, but I think you could continue and sort of increase that.”

About her personal values, Young said, “I really believe strongly in transparency. I like to listen a lot. I’m never going to be the loudest voice in the room, but I am going to be the person who’s listening to everything, taking it all down, considering it and trying to come up with some plans.

“I’m a public servant. I’m not here because I want any type of credit or anything along those lines. I’m here because I want to do everything I can to make this community as strong as possible. Any community that I end up being in is going to become my family, and I do everything I can to try to support my family.”

Young has two sons and two dogs. In her spare time, she enjoys kayaking, swimming, cooking, hiking and volunteering.

Blair Larsen

Larsen was next. He currently serves as Sweet Home’s community and economic development director, a position he’s held since 2019.

He grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, graduating from Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business in 2003 with bachelor’s degrees in Russian and media arts studies.

In 2009, he earned a juris doctor degree from BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, followed by a master of public administration degree that year at the business school.

He then served as a budget analyst for Broward County in Florida from 2010 to 2013, followed by a city manager stint in the eastern Oregon city of Stanfield from 2013 to 2019.

Larsen discussed Sweet Home’s challenges and opportunities.

“Nearly every challenge is also an opportunity,” he said. “Distance from Interstate 5 might be a challenge for some people, but it’s an opportunity for others. It means that you have a place that people want to go to that’s away from it all, and you have the bones for a destination. Small population might be a challenge for some retailers, but low-population density is what other people are looking for.”

“Infrastructure is a challenge with our wastewater plant,” he continued, “but infrastructure is also an opportunity, with the amount of water we have and the highway and railroad that serve our community. Personnel might be a challenge, but every time you have a vacancy it’s an opportunity to bring somebody incredible onboard and add to the strength of the organization and the community.”

He spoke of another kind of vacancy as well.

“We always see vacant buildings downtown as a problem,” he said. “It’s also a huge opportunity. And developable land is a huge opportunity. There are people looking for those things. The key is to match the right opportunities up with the challenges that we have.”

He added that explaining the homeless situation to residents, specifically how the city cannot by law enforce anti-camping ordinances without enough shelter beds for its homeless population, has led to some positives.

“Every time we do that communication, it allows us to build relationships, and it allows us to explain the vision of the community,” he said. “We’ve actually gotten people who want to volunteer because of those interactions. So that strengthens that relationship.”

Larsen proposed the following strategies for the city: “play to our strengths,” “every interaction is an opportunity” and “find the opportunity in every challenge.”

“We need to recognize the culture of our area,” he said. “We need to recognize what we have and celebrate it. We don’t need to try to be somebody else. Because what we are is wonderful and is going to attract people who are looking for it. We live in an amazingly beautiful area. We need to capitalize on that. I think we’ve been doing that, but we need to do it more.

“We are small, but that makes us nimble, accessible and responsive, as long as we train, cross-train and empower our employees. We’ve had a number of developers (telling us) that they prefer to work with our building department rather than with other communities, because they’re able to get the hands-on, direct help that they need.

City Manager candidate Blair Larsen, Sweet Home’s current community and economic development director, speaks with Sweet Home resident Kurt Kuczynski.

“We want to be the preferred community to work with for any developer that comes in. Because we want them to be here, unlike other communities that are happy with what they have.”

Larsen said the city needed to build relationships with “residents, businesses, property owners, other government entities – everyone. This takes effort. This is hard. As a (self-described) introvert, it’s not a comfortable thing. Everybody wants to talk to the people that they already know and that they already talk to. Talking to somebody new is difficult. But it has to be done.

“Building that relationship takes face time, it takes being present, and it takes massive amounts of communication. And it requires follow-through. You’ve got to do what you say you’re going to do. It’s a two-way street. You help some people out, they help you out. It builds the relationship and builds trust.”

“Every communication we have in the city needs to educate whoever we’re talking to about what the city is doing and why,” he added.

“That builds trust. It builds relationships, and it helps get people excited about the vision for what’s happening, for what we want out of our communities. It also gives them an opportunity to express their own opinion about what they think the vision should be. We want your voice to be added to the voices that are already in our community.”

He said that he’s been telling staff since he started that “The answer is always yes. The question is how. Whenever we have builders come to the counter, or people applying to do something with their property, the answer is always yes. Yes, you can develop your property. The question is how.”

“That attitude is important to have throughout the city,” he continued. “Our answer is yes. If you want to live here, we want you to live here. We want you to be happy here. This is how we can help you do that. Because we are a community of law and order, and there are rules for what we will allow to happen.”

Like Young, Larsen also discussed the former mill site’s potential.

“It has been talked about as a future home of the Jamboree,” he said. “We don’t want it to be a one-trick pony. It needs to fulfill (many) purposes. It needs to be a destination. It’s an opportunity that is probably the biggest thing that the city needs to capitalize on.”

He said what takes place at the Quarry Park site are dependent on City Council objectives.

“The city manager doesn’t do anything that is outside the goals of the city,” he said. “It requires buy-in from the council – from the public, ultimately.”

He also spoke of seeking funding for a downtown streetscape plan, as well as working toward developing a Downtown Association and finalizing the Family Assistance and Resource Center facility, which the Lebanon-based organization is currently constructing east of Bi-Mart to offer services and shelter to Sweet Home’s homeless population.

“That facility needs to be finished as soon as possible,” he said. “The city has done everything that it said it’s going to do. We’re just pushing things along. Once that is complete, we will have the ability to enforce our own ordinances. And we will need to put our efforts where our mouth has been for the last year and make improvements.”

He also believed that the city needed to capitalize on Foster Lake, where he saw “huge potential.”

“Right now, Foster is only really accessible to people who bring their own boats,” he said. “There’s really nowhere for people to rent kayaks or anything like that in the city.

“You’d have to go far outside of town, to Albany or something, and rent something and haul it all the way here, which just doesn’t make a lot of sense. I think there’s a lot of potential for promoting businesses that provide amenities at the lake and increase access to it. It’s our jewel. We want people to enjoy it.”

Larsen recently met with the Army Corps of Engineers to talk about a potential project that would add a Santiam Excursion Train rail stop next to the lake.

“Right now, the train goes to 18th Avenue, and there’s nothing there, and it just goes right back to Lebanon where it started,” Larsen said. “But if we can get it to an actual destination, it makes that excursion train much more interesting, and would also provide a sort of commercial nucleus next to the lake.”

In closing, he said that improving relationships with government partners is vital.

“We need to improve our relationship with the school district and Linn County,” he said. “I’ve talked already with the council about that. There’s definitely room for improvement. And frankly, the school district and the city should be best friends. We have interests that are the same.”

On a personal note, Larsen shared that his wife and three kids “love it here” in Sweet Home. “We’ve really enjoyed the past three years.”