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A waterfront lesson: collaboration can change things

Another Voice

By KATHY WATSON

Special to the News

How Hood River chooses the development it pursues for the waterfront area is another watershed moment for this community. Unfortunately, like many other hot button issues we’ve seen in recent years, we are much more interested in fighting against what we don’t want than in collaborating to reach “yes.”

Our lack of public vision belongs to all of us. Rather than spend a lot of time thinking about how we’ve ended up with another divisive situation, I’d like to make a few suggestions to both those in support of the Port’s plan, and those in opposition to it. If we can learn to work our way through one large public disagreement, we might be able to apply what we’ve learned to the other complicated issues that are sure to come our way in the future.

1. Attempt to engage in real dialogue: While the port points out it has held numerous public meetings regarding port development, there has been little real dialogue about the options. I have not seen the interested parties talking openly with each other, and without rancor, about what they want, and what they don’t want, and then being honest about how to pay for those values. The dialogue void has been filled by rumors.

There are two very valid perspectives in play here. The port wants to engage in development activities that have a near-term payback, helping the port create jobs for a county with far too many poor people, and to balance its books. Its waterfront proposal meets the demands of its strategic plan, the county economic development plan, and its legal mandate.

As I understand it, citizens in opposition to the plan want job creation too, but they see a very different route to the same riches. They want more open space and public amenities (some don’t want any development at all) that they believe will, in the long term, maintain the strong sense of “place” Hood River already possesses, which can be its single most powerful development tool in the future.

There is ample evidence that creating “small words” — environments that by their very nature draw people to them (imagine a Paris streetscape) — can create a compelling draw for business development. There is ample good will and wisdom on both sides of this issue. The Oregon Health Plan is a good example of how to reach an accommodation of both views. The health plan is based on the notion that every choice has a price: fund heart transplants, and the number of children getting pre-natal care will drop. Citizens who want more public amenities on the waterfront will need to help the port figure out how to pay for them.

To simply demand more public amenities without helping the port fund them is a dishonest approach to public policy. The port should, on the other hand, be willing to explain why it believes its development plan is the best approach to preserve and enhance Hood River’s long-term health.

2. Show some respect: I carry a card in my wallet that says, “I will have unconditional high regard for all people at all times.” Boy, do I wish I could live up to that challenge! Still, I am somewhat shocked at the lack of respect and civility on both sides of this issue. Port supporters sneer at citizens who question the port’s plan; citizens who are opposed to the plan liken port supporters to Neanderthals, and worse. If we respected people for at least their right to opposing views, and then ... gasp ... actually took the time to see things from their point of view, we might all learn something, and find an avenue for collaboration.

3. Be open to alternatives: Hood River could learn something from Portland. I don’t want Hood River to be like Portland. But, it is a city that has figured out that collaboration between citizens and government is a heck of a lot cheaper than lawsuits. And a lot less time-consuming. Is it too late to hold a Waterfront Summit, where a full-spectrum of views presented by experts on waterfront development alternatives could be discussed in public? It’s only too late if we’re satisfied with yet another development project that will drag on forever, and leave too many walking wounded in its wake.

I do not believe we will all see eye to eye. Hood River has become a microcosm of Oregon views. East meets west here, sometimes one mile apart. When Neil Goldschmidt was governor, I remember him challenging an audience to imagine that Oregon was a country surrounded on all sides by enemies with armies intent on invasion. He asked the crowd if they would cooperate — or compete— to win such a war. The answer is obvious.

We must learn, as a community, to enter into genuine dialogue, show respect for each other, and be open to alternatives. Or after we shred each other over the waterfront, another issue will come along, and we’ll just charge from our corners, intent on beating the stuffing out of each other once again.

We are better than that, I believe. Let’s show it.

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Kathy Watson is a Hood River resident and partner in the consulting firm Watson x 2, and a recent appointee to the Port of Hood River Budget Committee.

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