Downtown cleanup Thursday evening; volunteers needed

Energy pent up from recent city presentations concerning minimum maintenance standards and historic preservation in downtown Aberdeen is resulting in a volunteer cleanup effort Thursday evening.

Volunteers are invited to weed and clean up as much of Wishkah Street as possible after gathering at Zelasko Park at 6 p.m. next Thursday. It was suggested that workers, who will be asked to sign a waiver, bring gloves and gear.

Members of a task force appointed by Mayor Bill Simpson to address downtown problems arrived at a meeting last Thursday evening with a head of steam after spending the day perusing the streets with Community Development Director Lisa Scott. “You’ve got to walk it” and “step up and get things done,” she said. Her mission dovetailed the task force agenda to target Wishkah Street.

At the behest of Scott, city council member Kathi Hoder also asked task force members to take photos of obsolete business signs so they can be targeted for removal. Scott wants the sign inventory finished by July 1, Hoder said.

An example of one such sign is a giant banner advertising the auctioning of the Elks Building. The banner is several years old.

Business owner and task force member John Martinsen, who owns property across from Rite Aid, brought in photos of the unsightly weeds, dirt, and other debris that often choke the aesthetic life out of the streets he remembers as clean and “full of life” when he was a child.

Urging regular and consistent action, the meeting was led by Mike Spezia, who was asked by Mayor Bill Simpson to form the task force in the wake of a meeting held after D&R Theatre and property owner John Yonich briefly closed his operations, upset with rules he felt were onerous.

The mayor invited owners of derelict and dilapidated buildings to a well-attended presentation by City Attorney Eric Nelson that contemplated minimum maintenance standards and how they might help or spark other avenues of action.

For Thursday’s cleanup, the city will contribute trash bags, a truck, and, possibly, reflective vests for volunteers, Simpson said at the task force meeting. He also agreed to consult department heads as to whether it is feasible, given their work loads, for city crews to devote more attention to cleanup and maintenance of downtown and Aberdeen in general.

Lack of care and maintenance of downtown’s businesses was decried again several times at the Thursday meeting. Business in Aberdeen has suffered in the wake of decades of downturns in the wood products industry, population declines, a shift of business out of downtown and a traffic pattern that funnels Highway 101 through the middle of downtown.

The city has improved the streets with lighting and sidewalks, but more needs to be done, many said.

Jim George, an independent consultant who presented information about economic development and other issues at a prior task force gathering, spoke of the “broken window” effect.

“If (owners) don’t fix (them) within 24 hours, then it’s not acceptable,” he said. Regular repair and cleaning can go a long way to improving downtown, many agreed.

Quick action was urged by new Planning Commission member Elaine Redner, who is running against Hoder for council. She spoke of inspiring and motivating people to change the culture. Hoder noted that it is difficult “to change attitudes … but (you) can get your hands dirty.” Hoder praised efforts by city workers to keep up with the workload.

Council member Denny Lawrence, who is also up for re-election, spoke of taking “ownership” of city streets, gutters and sidewalks.

Several minutes of the meeting were devoted to speculating about spray washing and repainting some of the fading facades. Asked if that was possible legally, City Attorney Eric Nelson emailed Friday that the city has “assisted volunteer clean-ups downtown in the past by preparing releases to document the owner’s consent” and attached a sample of permission to paint building surfaces in alleys.

A “minimum maintenance ordinance might not be the right place to put a mandatory spray washing and/or painting requirement,” he wrote. “(I)t might better received as part of an incentive program rather than part of an enforcement program.”

Enforcement “cannot be justified solely by aesthetics. There needs to be a public safety component” such as “structural integrity” or “nuisance abatement,” Nelson wrote Friday.

The idea that others would have to power wash and paint structures for owners who allow their buildings to become eyesores irked several at the meeting.

“Property owners who have resources and won’t” repair or repaint “put a burr in my saddle,” said Paul Metke, who is remodeling the building where the Grand Heron shop is located and is a task force member.

The task force has identified three areas of focus in several meetings: economic development, how to provide missing resources for drug users and interrupt drug markets, and “partnering with the county to improve the coordination and implementation of an effective and comprehensive homeless program,” according to the agenda.

This is the first of what is hoped to be a series of actions. On the agenda, echoing a piece he wrote on Facebook, Spezia wrote “(W)e need to have monthly activities that individuals, organizations and businesses can do together to impact these needs” and “impact the perception that our downtown is not worth saving or that it is someone else’s responsibility to do something!”