What’s next for Corvallis after downtown businesses lose their biggest defender | Local

With the Downtown Corvallis Association disbanding after nearly four decades of service, the work of promoting and advocating for downtown businesses is up for grabs.

The Chamber of Commerce, however, is only partially interested. Meanwhile, the general manager appears to have left town, and the city is conducting an audit of the agency whose goal was to direct consumer traffic to downtown.

The dissolution was announced in a Feb. 17 press release from the association’s board of directors. The statement cited COVID-19 as the cause, saying the pandemic had shut down most major fundraising events for the past two years.

Executive Director Jennifer Moreland did not respond to requests for comment. Moreland took over the association in 2018 when Joan Wessell retired after 25 years as chief executive.

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Even before the announcement, the city asked to audit the nonprofit organization’s past five years of financial records. He also requested that contracts, payroll records, income and expense details, proof of work performed, bank statements and any previous audits be provided by Tuesday, March 1.

The city has the right to request these items because the nonprofit was funded by a downtown economic improvement district that the city created in 1993. It applies a voluntary surcharge to property owners who have agreed to pay in exchange for programming and advocacy that would help the downtown. businesses thrive.

At the time, the use of improvement districts in this way was common, according to Economic Development Officer Kate Porsche of the Corvallis-Benton County Office of Economic Development.

But owner participation, Porsche said, has declined over the years, shrinking district boundaries and revenue from Downtown Corvallis Association operations. These operations included business assistance, public outreach, political engagement and community events.

Now, many inner-city organizations are moving away from improvement districts, focusing more on membership or sponsorship models, she added.

According to city records, properties in the neighborhood were assessed annually at $1.25 per $1,000 of actual market value, with a maximum limit of $3,500. The appraisals generated about $60,000 a year for the association, according to city records.

Audit of the association

Reviewing the association’s effectiveness, Porsche said the answer came from the great work Moreland did, such as organizing grassroots events and publicity campaigns that drew people downtown. She noted the success of the small Saturday shop.

Porsche said the ongoing audit could help understand the district’s long-term impact.

“It’s coming to an end; now is the logical time to do an audit,” she said. “Also, contractually, if they end up returning the remaining funds to us, then we would have the responsibility to manage the backflow of those funds.”

Porsche could not confirm whether there had been any previous association audits.

The district is renewed by a two-thirds majority vote of the building owners in the district every five years. The current five-year period began in 2017 and ends on June 30. Porsche said it’s likely the neighborhood won’t be renewed, in part because the work of the renewal campaign falls on the sunset association, not the city.

Chamber of Commerce

The Corvallis Chamber of Commerce may pick up some of the coins for the Downtown Corvallis Association – but the chamber does not absorb its role or support the closing of the Economic Improvement District.

“These businesses are going to need support,” said Chamber chief executive Simon Date. “They’re going to need a resource to turn to when they’re having trouble with the city, code or regulations, or just want to be a part of more basic things like marketing and networking.”

Both organizations share similarities: the chamber strives to attract, develop and improve Corvallis businesses with a view to sustainability. Date said his organization tended to leave the downtown area mostly to the association.

“The one thing that (the Downtown Corvallis Association) is different from us is that they’re a lot more event-driven, and that’s a bigger part of their revenue,” Date said, adding that the chamber is largely funded by memberships. “The other thing is they have a financial connection to the city in terms of contacting them, which we don’t.”

Hailing the relationship and support between the two organizations as well as Moreland itself, Date said the crossover between them included about 20 of the chamber’s 343 member companies who were also members of the association. The association lists 170 members on its website.

Shop closure

Date also held a non-voting position on the association’s board of directors, which gave him insight into the surprising dissolution as it was being considered. He said the end of the Economic Improvement District leaves a major obstacle to sustaining the association, especially without event revenue.

“Obviously Jen leaving was a factor because she contributed so much to the success that they had,” he said, adding that it would be difficult to replace her, especially under the persistent economic blow of the pandemic.

A recent vote by the chamber’s board of directors determined that any funding that may be released to the chamber as part of the association’s dissolution will only be accepted after its audit is complete. Date said it was a no-brainer to wait. He plans to use any infusion to fund an additional rooming post, which would allow him to focus more on downtown.

“That money, through an agreement with the DCA, would be used to further their mission but not their organization,” he said. “We have no illusions that we are stepping in like knights in shining armor to save an organization that is unfortunately going bankrupt.”

Cody Mann covers Benton County and the towns of Corvallis and Philomath. He can be reached at 541-812-6113 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter via @News_Mann_.

“We have no illusions that we are stepping in like knights in shining armor to save an organization that is unfortunately going bankrupt.” ~Simon Date, Corvallis Chamber of Commerce

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