Program Aiding Downtown Businesses Skips Minorities, and North Corvallis

On June 12, the City of Corvallis unveiled a new permit program that allows businesses to operate in the public  right-of-way (ROW), giving local restaurants extra space to seat customers while adhering to social distance requirements.   

However, not every business can benefit from the ROW permit program, and interviews with members of the team who created this program as well as business owners revealed a tendency for downtown businesses to get more attention than those on the north side of town, which include many minority-owned businesses.  

Bringing ROW to Corvallis  

The ROW permit program, which is one of several intended to help Corvallis businesses reopen during the pandemic, started with Jennifer Moreland, the Downtown Corvallis Association (DCA) Executive Director. Moreland had heard that other places like McMinnville and the Alberta District in Portland were considering shutting down streets to support businesses, and felt Corvallis should do something similar. 

 Moreland brought the idea to Jerry Sorte, the Economic Development Supervisor of the City of Corvallis. Sorte liked the idea and the two of them got to work, with the Economic Development Office (EDO), “more or less taking the lead on the project,” according to Sorte.  

“Together he and I interviewed different businesses and asked them what they would like,” said Moreland, adding, “he got it passed, and I went out and let people know this was happening.”   

While many other Corvallis organizations were involved in the shaping of the program through their relationship with EDO – as a result of this partnership – Moreland was able to directly contact a number of downtown businesses, some of which voiced their ideas for the program before it was rolled out.  

Once the ROW program was finalized, Sorte and Moreland “worked with different restaurant owners, trying to get them to comply with the rules,” said Moreland, who was also able to inform businesses by OSU about the permits and convince the owners of Valley Rock Gym to allow retailers to recommend their customers park in its underutilized parking lot.  

Equity & Inclusion  

While Sorte says his office reached out directly to more than 600 businesses by late June and “have tried to be as inclusive as possible,” he added that when it comes to conducting outreach to marginalized business owners, “we do that primarily through our partners,” including weekly calls with organizations like the DCA, the Sustainability Coalition, the Corvallis Business Network, and the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce. Among these examples, only the Sustainability Coalition explicitly promotes equity as a defining issue on its website.  

To Simon Date, the President/CEO of the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce (CoC), this has been a noticeable problem since he took on his current role one year ago: “we don’t do a good job (conducting outreach to minority-owned businesses) as a chamber, or as a community,” he admitted.   

While Date noted broad support for the new permit program among the nearly 400 businesses the CoC represents, he added “there is a sense of, ‘this is great for downtown, but what am I going to do if my business is on 9th? What am I going to do if my business is elsewhere?’”   

As of July 8, fifteen restaurants had applied for and received the permit through the Public Works Department. Thirteen of these businesses are located in downtown and two are located adjacent to the OSU campus.   

“Cleary there’s been a lot of people taking advantage of (the permit program) in the downtown at this point,” Sorte said.   

This is not surprising, as the new permit borrows elements from the sidewalk café permit, “which is a primarily downtown program,” according to Public Works Director Mary Steckel  

Businesses with a Right-of-Way Permit include: Treebeard’s Taphouse, Sky High, Bombs Away Café, American Dream Campus and Downtown, Castor, Bellhop, Cheesey Stuffed Burgers, Magenta, Peacock, Little Morocco, Peak Sports, Sibling Revelry, Wisecracks, and Seoul Sisters.  

When pressed on whether the outreach for the ROW permit program included outreach to minority-owned businesses, Moreland and Sorte cited posts on the city website and social media, as well as emails sent via groups like the DCA.   

“If someone hasn’t heard about this, they are not paying attention to anything that revolves around their industry,” Moreland added.  

Barriers to Inclusion  

It is possible that language barriers would prevent minority-owned restaurants from knowing what is happening in Corvallis, that could impact their business? The City’s “Back to Business Guide”, which was published on May 22 to help businesses reopen while following Oregon Health Authority requirements is only now being translated into Spanish.   

The City of Corvallis has taken other steps in recent months to support local businesses that cannot use the ROW permit, including easing parking requirements for businesses that have their own parking supply. Prior to creating the ROW permit, the City announced businesses can use private parking spaces, “for outdoor operations, such as dining or merchandising, so long as 50% of the required spaces remain available for vehicle parking.  

No permits are required for a business to take advantage of this program and many restaurants north of downtown, including those whose owners were interviewed for this article, are located on sites with private parking lots  

However, the outreach conducted for this program has been less robust than for the ROW permits. In an email, Sorte wrote this program was created through “similar collaboration” as the ROW permit program, and added, “A City staffer distributed the press release on the parking lot program to approximately 26 restaurants in Corvallis.”   

Latinx Communities Speak Out  

While Sorte claims his office “has been working during the whole COVID response to try to reach out to the Hispanic community,” none of the Latinx-owned business interviewed for this article felt that the city had done much to support them since the pandemic began, and reducing parking requirements does not mean restaurant owners can automatically set up tables outside their business.  

Moises Nuñez, who owns La Rockita on Circle Boulevard, feels the City could do more to support small businesses in his area. While Nuñez believes La Rockita “would benefit a lot” from being able to set up tables in the parking spaces outside his business, it is ultimately up to his landlord to permit him to do that. Nuñez believes the City calling up his landlord to convince them of the idea “would help a lot too.”  

Juana De Los Santos, who owns Pilos Mexican Bakery on NW Circle Boulevard, said she had not received any sort of outreach from City Hall since the pandemic began. “I don’t know what (City Hall) are offering,” De Los Santos said, who was also unsure what the City could do to support businesses like hers.  

Ed Mendoza, whose family has owned El Palenque Mexican Restaurant and Cantina on NW Circle Boulevard for two and a half years, has come to expect little outreach from the City unless it is requested. “Being on the north side of town, I don’t feel like we get a lot of business pushed our way,” said Mendoza, who added, “I just feel like Corvallis focuses a lot on downtown” while, “on this side of town, we have to fend for ourselves.”  

Mendoza would also like to see the City do more to support businesses in his neighborhood, and suggested it start by sharing a guide that lets potential customers know which businesses are currently open, and considering hosting events similar to those that often take place downtown.   

“I mean, we have parks over here too, and a giant shopping center” Mendoza said. “I’m sure if they talked to our landlord, she would be willing to do maybe like a farmers market or something like that to at least expose the businesses.”  

Bringing in customers isn’t the only kind of support local business owners would appreciate from City Hall. Guadalupe Mèndez, whose sister owns La Puente, works as a manager of th  

e store and often helps her sibling out by translating material sent to their shop. Despite having to close for six weeks due to the virus, Mèndez doesn’t believe, “City Hall has reached out to us,” but she would appreciate it if the City considered “maybe just talking to the landlord” about accepting smaller payments of rent until her sister’s business can return to some kind of normal.   

The City’s Responsibility  

While Sorte said EDO relies on partnerships with organizations like the CoC to conduct the kind of outreach that might reveal La Puente’s needs, Date believes there is at least one major barrier to the CoC providing better outreach to minority-owned businesses and businesses outside downtown  

Businesses in Corvallis do not need to get a license from the city to operate, which Date said makes it difficult for his organization to know how many businesses there are in the city and how to reach them.   

“For me to reach out to (minority-owned) businesses, I’ve got to do two things” said Date.   

Date listed the ability to provide material in the right language(s) as the first requirement, and knowing “who the heck I’m trying to get a hold of” as the second.   

While EDO does provide language translation services, which Mèndez praised, Date believes access to some kind of registry of local businesses would allow him to guide minority-owned businesses towards local and federal programs they might be able to access, including Corvallis’ ROW permit and the City press release on relaxing parking restrictions.  

However, Date also recognizes Corvallis has, “done enough over the past twenty, thirty years to create a good enough reason (for minority-owned businesses) not to trust, or not feel included.”   

When it comes to improving equity for minority-owned businesses, Date added it is not on those owners to change, but rather “we need to change. This is our burden.”  

For Date, the next step for the City and communities of Corvallis is to recognize “we’re the ones that have to do the reaching out” to minority-owned businesses.   

Second, Date believes it is important that the voices typically shaping programs like the ROW permit do not drive the ensuing conversation. To him it is important for the City and business organizations to not say, “this is what we want to do and this is how we are going to do it, and we would love you to be a part of it” but instead say, “what do you need from us and how do you need it?”  

By Henry Miller 

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