Community development director reflects

John Swanson points to economic gains

POLK COUNTY -- After his work on urban renewal in Dallas, Independence and Monmouth won the communities an award last year from the Oregon Downtown Development Association, John Swanson had something to live up to.

The cities' unique partnership -- working for the common good -- had garnered state attention.

As core area redevelopment manager for all three cities, Swanson knew all eyes would be on him. "We got that award before we really proved ourselves," he said.

"I felt the pressure to prove myself."

In almost two years since he came to Polk County, Swanson finds positive signs locally despite a dismal state and national economy. Vacant storefronts are filling. Summertime festivals grow each year.

Home-based and specialty businesses are taking off. "The market is coming into its own," Swanson said. "There's lots of entrepreneurship and niche businesses that are starting to succeed."

Swanson sees his job -- working half-time for Dallas and quarter-time each for Independence and Monmouth -- as helping the cities do what they had planned for but lack the resources to accomplish. And the city officials who brought Swanson in from western Pennsylvania like his work enough to keep him around after the job's grant funding dries up.

"We're really happy with what he's doing," said Independence City Manager Greg Ellis. "He's really a dynamo -- a lot of energy, really fun to work with and really knowledgeable about downtowns."

The three cities had shared state Economic and Community Development grants for two years. When those expire later this year, they'll use video lottery funds reserved for economic development in the region. Dallas will also hire Swanson as a part-time planner for managing growth.

Working for three very different cities, Swanson's job varies as much as the communities themselves. In Dallas, where he has his office, Swanson is the "city hall guy," working with city committees and fielding visitors.

He staffs Monmouth's Economic Development Task Force and the Independence Downtown Association. In each town, he works with business assistance teams, support networks of business people and community leaders.

"If you have a business person in trouble, they're not necessarily going to come to city hall," Swanson said, "but they might know someone who can help.

"Businesses fail because people think they're in it by themselves."

Swanson tries to help existing businesses thrive and attract new ones. Whether it's a legal, financial or marketing problem, Swanson or a team member will have an answer.

"He's just a wealth of information," said Carey Madden, president of the Monmouth Business Association. "He prides himself in having the resources to answer people's questions.

"He's very reliable and he'll get back to you within 24 hours."

Many times, help for business problems already exists. Swanson steers business people to tax incentives or loans, state programs and the Chemeketa Community College Small Business Development Center in Salem.

"These services are available and you're already paying for them," Swanson said. "Why not get some of your money back?"

Swanson's role in Monmouth involves building ties to business people. "The initial intent in bringing John on was business retention and expansion in the core area," said City Manager Jeff Hecksel.

"You do that by establishing relationships."

Beyond those ties, Swanson gives valuable staff time to projects that would otherwise stall. With only one half-time planner and the city manager, Monmouth would lack the staff for revitalization projects.

"The economic development aspect could take a lot of time," Hecksel said. "There's a gaping hole and that's where John Swanson comes in."

Swanson fields questions from not just current business owners but those looking to start a business. He even speaks in schools, encouraging young entrepreneurs.

Sometimes students dream up the best business ideas, Swanson said. "It's really exciting for me to see these light bulbs go on over people's heads."

Other times, adults stop by his office to talk about a business plan they have. Sometimes they return for more guidance. Often, they don't.

Swanson doesn't mind. "I'd rather see a bad business never start than see someone lose their shirt."

He sees himself as a bridge between local businesses and government. "My job is to have one foot in the business community and one foot in City Hall.

"Whatever city hall that is."

In Dallas, City Manager Roger Jordan sees major progress downtown, starting with more occupied storefronts. In the fall of 2002, when Swanson came to town, 14 percent of downtown buildings sat vacant.

By January 2004, that number had dropped to 6 percent.

"John's position was one step to having a program matching business owners with vacant property and encouraging programs such as the facade loan program," Jordan said. "It's clear from the Community Development Commission and city council level that the position and program have done everything we intended it to."

Swanson sees a more exciting -- if less measurable -- indicator of success across the county. "Not all small towns share the goodwill we have," he said.

"If you could make a graph that shows community goodwill, we'd be off the charts."


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