Community College? What of it? What does the college have to do with anything in politics or the economy?

Bear with us, the point will come.

Today is a general election day that offers almost no welcome choices for locals. Not counting Kelly Minty Morris who is the only new blood. She won a County Commissioner seat back in May by receiving an overwhelming majority vote, making it unnecessary for her to run again, now, in November. That turn of events was made possible because incumbent Dennis Linthicum did not run for re-election, opting instead for an insane bid at the U.S. House of Representatives against career politician Greg Walden, who has held that position for last 15 years. Linthicum might have had a shot at Congress if Walden had decided not to run. Linthicum stepped aside on the County race. What a nice guy to give a winning chance to Morris, who still would have not won in the land of old, male-dominant Republicans…if not for luck: her two male opponents in the primary were scary-looking and batshit nuts. You have to hand it to her for sticking with it. She’s run before and lost, but this time the crazies and the planets lined up in her favor.

You get a sense from conversations with incumbents that they feel obligated to extend their tenure in office in order to preserve something they did, even though the things most politicians do are seldom reversed. In part they are securing a legacy they have created in their own minds–but they are also blocking someone else from getting in–someone who may somehow harm the world of their constituents. Such made-up fear mongering works well in a dull place like Klamath, where voters prefer either the corruption of the devil they know or a placeholder in the form of a stranger they think they know who has done nothing for them. Klamathites trust anything that has been sitting around for a long time. Rocks, volcanoes, people.

Dangerous Incumbencies

Contrary to their own opinions, incumbents are not doing the public any favors by staying in office. Incumbents kill enthusiasm for the democratic process every time they run for re-election. And here’s a news flash they will never internalize: everyone will do just fine without them. In most cases, communities would do far better with anyone who doesn’t pledge allegiance to the special interests that support them. The incumbents have delivered to Klamath one of the worst economies in the country, yet there they still sit, like rocks.

termlimitsThree City Council members are running for office again and two of them are unopposed. Point made. From prior posts, you may gather that the City of Klamath Falls problem is more than just the re-election of the fossilized remains of human beings. Although that is a large part of the atrophy that relegated Klamath to the current Dark Age, recall that City Council members are not fairly compensated for their time (compared with Walden, who is paid $170K a year…and so is the City Manager). Nobody in their right mind would spend their own money on a low office if there is no way to recover the investment. The other problem is the form of government itself. Enough of that for now (go back and read earlier posts). Now to the other point of the story…

One Year Ago

Does anyone remember what they were voting on exactly one year ago? No worries if you can’t, because nobody was running for office. There was only one item on the ballot: whether or not to pass a tax levy to support Klamath Community College. Being the only issue, the community college is fully responsible for wasting taxpayer money to ask the same question they asked in prior elections in which they were resoundingly rejected.  We need a moratorium on this sort of thing because direct mail elections are costly. Should anyone be allowed to push such nonsensical ballot questions that trigger a wasteful outreach if there aren’t any other issues or candidates on the ballot?

Collegezilla

The Klamath Community College funding issue would be easier to accept, and perhaps even support, if it was what the community actually wanted. A sprawling sheet metal complex on farmland far away from the other higher education institution and business districts is definitely NOT what the Klamath community asked for.

In the mid-90s, Trey Senn, the Director of the Klamath Economic Development Association was the leader who pulled together the legion of stakeholders to request that Klamath receive the first new Community College in over 40 years. This epiphany came after hearing from so many manufacturer prospects that Klamath’s workforce needed more entry-level vocational training in areas like computers, welding, and other forms of fabrication such as composites. OIT was above most of that sort of thing, and looking around at Klamath’s core of run-down buildings, Senn saw a greater opportunity: a new college could re-purpose downtown Klamath Falls buildings within a distributed campus model to establish a sustainable economic core. Portland Community College operated on exactly that model, so Senn didn’t think it would be an unreasonable request. The primary target of Senn’s group was to convince the State to purchase the Egyptian-style Ballsiger Ford Building at the corner of Main and Esplanade. The two acre geothermal site with over 40,000 square feet of space would have made a great anchor point for the new college.

Senn’s group lobbied in earnest, gathering so many supporters and making such strong arguments that the state of Oregon finally agreed. Locals were ecstatic. Their vision for a vibrant downtown, anchored by the state purchase and renovation of historically significant buildings supplied with free geothermal heat was bound to create a ripple effect. This effect would be witnessed through the investments in other building renovations and new enterprises that would change the fabric of the Klamath Falls core, stabilizing the economic hub of the County from which investments in communities throughout the County would emerge.

But when the State of Oregon higher education branch became involved, the project went completely sideways. The person in charge was Roger Basset, the Governor’s Education and Workforce Policy Adviser. Basset (now retired) had visited many colleges in Oregon and Washington and no doubt believed that Klamath should follow the typical model of a grand, sweeping campus. For some reason, he hated the PCC model Klamath had asked for. Basset’s attitude made no sense to regular people, who never could figure out why institutions like the Deschutes Community College in Bend required a drive far out of town to a hilltop owned exclusively by the State of Oregon. Such remote locations make commuting more costly and difficult and are so intrinsically separate from commercial zones, that college attendees and businesses alike suffer fewer restaurants and supporting professional services in the remote location. Nonetheless, higher education has demonstrated repeatedly that it must lord over a community with dozens of acres, or else they don’t feel like they have a community college. They weren’t about to make an exception for Klamath when they could waste far more money on empire building.

The Rift Within State Government

Representatives from the Oregon Economic Development Department (OEDD) were among the supporters of a downtown campus environment that would anchor urban renewal and sustain a greater diversity of downtown businesses. Senn and his Klamath group asked OEDD to influence the massive college investment back to the original downtown vision. When Basset was confronted, he went into a fitful rage against agency personnel for advocating a view that opposed his recommendations to the Governor’s office. His backlash created so many difficulties for the Klamath supporters within state government they were forced to back off. Why the Governor would side with a workforce policy advisor who did was not tasked with creating jobs over those in a different agency dedicated to actually creating a workforce is anybody’s guess.

What was Klamath supposed to do now? Proponents disliked the location Basset was pushing, but if they denounced the project they could jeopardize it entirely. They still felt a need to fill a perceived workforce training gap and any new money invested in Klamath would help a little in the short-term. They had no recourse. Klamath wasn’t in a position to look this gift horse in the mouth, so all the stakeholders had to march forward in alignment with the draconian tyranny of the Governor’s office and their propensity to count wasteful token investments as victories. Such are the cruel ironies of politics, especially in regard to topics that quickly become too convoluted and difficult for the short attention span of the public mind to comprehend.

The Alternate Universe

Imagine how different Klamath would be today if the community college had been implemented according to the original vision of Trey Senn and his stakeholders.

  1. The college would have purchased, renovated and expanded the Balsiger. This would have structurally stabilized the center of the building that later collapsed out of neglect. The entire property remains un-utilized and derelict to this day.
  2. The college would have later acquired the former Herald and News building across the street when the paper moved out of it.
  3. The college would have likely acquired the property on the opposite corner that recently sold for less than $50,000 and is badly in need of a tear-down for parking or renovation that is unlikely to occur due to short-sighted City policies.
  4. The college may have purchased Riverside School from Klamath K-12 and added a very nice three story complex with a view on the other side of downtown. This building recently sold for only $75,000, even though it would cost over $1 million to replicate. The City will make any commercial use a challenge because of the zoning, but it could have easily been adapted for higher educational use.
  5. The college would have acquired and renovated several other buildings in the vicinity, that are structurally deficient and rotting away as eyesores because there is no economic impetus for investments. Between projects, the community college could have leased overflow space from local sites, such as the Oregon Bank Building and Winema Hotel.
  6. The properties the college would have acquired were in geothermal zones, some with active high temperature wells that could have been used to amplify the hot water loop and used as a catalyst for recruiting additional businesses.
  7. The entire east end of downtown would have received a facelift and functioned as a gateway that would rival the Veteran’s park entrance to downtown. As it turned out, the entire east side has stagnated into a rundown magnet for vandalism, graffiti, and drug trade. The increased foot traffic, investment and focus would have fully corrected the problems we see there today.
  8. The many students who take classes at both the community college and OIT would now be enjoying riding bikes or walking between campuses instead of driving a full 20 minutes or more, largely in stop-and-go traffic between the locations and wasting fuel in the process.
  9. The infrastructure and zoning in place downtown would have supported a greater diversity of social experiences through sustaining new restaurants, bars, coffee shops, printing centers, and the like that people typically expect to see in college towns, but have failed to materialize on OIT’s demand alone. None of those functions have manifested in the vicinity near the actual community college site. It simply was not a conducive location for such activity.
  10. If the community college had incrementally added and renovated many of the downtown properties that have come on the market, it would have saved millions over the cost of purchasing over 40 acres of land and building new structures, alleviating the need for so many tax measures every time they need to create more space by building new structures. It would also have saved money on heating by using downtown geothermal resources and received numerous grants for renewable energy utilization.

Klamath has seen many decision points where there was a clear choice to be made that would result in one of two clear and simple paths, one resoundingly prosperous, the other darkly destructive. One right, the other wrong, in other words. It has typically been Klamath residents who were responsible for choosing the wrong direction. In this case, however, it was someone outside of Klamath who doomed the community to the darkness it is experience now, instead of the alternate positive universe that Klamath wanted. That person is Roger Bassett, now retired after 23 years as policy advisor to three governors. A step behind him on the fault line is Governor Kitzhaber, who is being elected for a 4th term by the Portland-metro area where half of Oregon’s voting population resides, who ironically enjoys PCC’s distributed campus.

So next time you drive by the Klamath Community College campus and wonder why it is way out there beyond the clogged bottleneck that is South Sixth Street…far away from commerce and about as far away from the higher education, industrial and hospital complex as you can get..now you know how it came to pass.

Now that you know the history, you understand why many people don’t want to fund any further investment in a community college that failed to reflect the community that requested it. As Kitzhaber celebrates his 4th term as Governor, remember also to stop voting for incumbents, for they are all embroiled in such nonsense.