While businesses come and go in Umatilla, city policies are raising eyebrows, concerns and ire from local residents.
John Nichols presented the council with letters of resignation from both the Parks and Recreation Committee and the Umatilla Planning Commission after a recent decision by the commission.
On Thursday, the commission considered a conditional use permit from Steve Bunn for “Honey Bunnz Hide-Out” at 1201 Sixth St. The location – formerly a hair salon, an antique store and a locksmith – has been converted into a “gentleman’s club.”
The commission approved the application on a split vote. Craig Simson, Jaime Olvera and Boyd Sharp voted for the conditional use; Nichols and Keith Harding abstained.
Umatilla City Manager Bob Ward pointed out the vote should not be seen as being in support of the strip club. The Planning Commission does not dictate what type of businesses can operate in Umatilla – only whether or not the business meets the conditions required under city codes.
Honey Bunnz is the third strip club in Umatilla.
Although Nichols abstained from the vote, he said he was not comfortable with the decision.
“My gut is in a twist, and, I’m sorry, but I can’t put up with it anymore,” he said.
Ward said the decision as to whether certain business types are allowed would come from the Umatilla City Council, but residents have typically had two opposite opinions on business promotion.
“Some people would believe that since it is so hard to do business in Umatilla we shouldn’t have any restrictions. Others think we shouldn’t just let anything come in because we’re desperate,” Ward said Tuesday. “The (city’s downtown development) vision, given the current climate, is something that we can address to make it easier to do business in Umatilla without completely destroying that vision. That is a concern that could be discussed in the future.”
Ward’s comments came after Nichols’ resignation and comments from two other Umatilla area residents, Betty and Clyde Nobles, who spoke out at the council meeting.
Betty Nobles pointed to the amount of time the couple spends vetting potential renters for their business properties before selecting them while the city provides few restrictions on the types of businesses allowed in the city.
“We’re surrounded by two rivers. We have every opportunity… but it looks like a little Tijuana sideshow,” she said.
The Nobles argued more businesses have closed than have opened in the past six months. This week had its own share of ups and downs for the Umatilla business community. On Tuesday, the Umatilla City Council approved a liquor license for Donita’s Tacos, a new Mexican restaurant set up in space formerly occupied by Divine Dining. On Saturday, Freestyle Pizza quietly closed its doors.
The pizza parlor has been an active supporter of community groups and activities, as well as the schools and town clean-up efforts. It was the only pizza place in town.
In addition to store closings, the Nobles also highlighted the growing number of tax-exempt spaces in downtown: the school district office is a former bank; the Umatilla Museum and the Umatilla Police Department are both former city halls; the school district maintenance site used to be a grocery store. One corner has been turned into a park, and the city recently entered a right of first refusal to purchase the old Priceless Gas property to turn it into a park, part of a corridor between the Umatilla City Hall and the Umatilla Old Town Site.
“I’m getting concerned about Umatilla,” Clyde Nobles said. “Are you going to buy up every piece of property and… take it off the tax rolls? We’re losing our focus.”
Nobles also spoke against some city restrictions on businesses, such as mandating curb distance and requiring enclosures for garbage receptacles. In another example, the city notified the owners of APOS, a coffee shop specializing in lemonade, that the drive-through window was not up to code and would have to be moved and a sidewalk would have to be built.
The drive-through window was installed in the 1970s and had been used for businesses on the site within the last five years. The business opted to close in order to re-evaluate costs and plans to move the drive-through window. The business put the following post on its Facebook page:
“Sadly, the Umatilla City Council has denied our request to keep the drive-thru window open in its current location. In light of this unfortunate change of circumstances, and due to the significant costs associated with meeting the City’s new requirements, we are temporarily closed while we review our plans to relocate the window.”
In the same meeting in which the planning commission allowed Honey Bunnz to operate, it modified the conditional use permit for APOS. Although the drive-through movement still stands, the commission modified the sidewalk requirement, instead asking the business owners to put in curbing designating the areas reserved for pedestrians from those identified as a drive-through lane.
“Mr. Nobles is not the first to bring up the idea that we’re not business friendly,” Ward said, pointing out many of the city’s business restrictions stem from the downtown revitalization plan. The city has set certain requirements for businesses that face Sixth Street in order to promote a downtown feel.
The city also offers a grant program for repairs and renovations to city businesses and is working with the Oregon Department of Transportation on a grant to cover a streetscape project to change the appearance of downtown, working toward making it more pedestrian and business friendly.
Council woman Mary Dedrick thanked the residents for speaking out and said it had given the council things to think about. She did, however, add that many factors lead to businesses leaving the city – not just ordinances.
“When people keep raising the rent on businesses that are making it, it makes it hard to keep going,” she said as an example. “We do care about our businesses.”
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