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Council considers letter of support for hotel shelter

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Council considers letter of support for hotel shelter

Red Lion Inn and Suites, pictured here, is being considered for one of the several hotels and motels in Oregon that is being converted into shelter space of some type with money from the Oregon Legislature.

ONTARIO — A local nonprofit is aiming to secure $3.5 million in Project Turnkey funds to convert the Red Lion hotel into a shelter space and supportive housing for people on state programs, such as foster care, which need such an interim space to stay while they are in transition. However, there are 10 days remaining to secure the funds before they go back to Oregon’s General Fund, and more work is needed. Part of this work will include conducting a public hearing, which will be done by EUVALCREE, a Latino-based and Latino-led nonprofit, which needs the city’s letter of support in order to release the funds.

“This is not for homeless individuals,” emphasized Gustavo Morales, executive director for EUVALCREE, when he addressed the council for the first time publicly regarding the project. “This is a temporary shelter due to unfortunate circumstances.”

If support is needed, why did the council just find out?

Community Development Director Dan Cummings said in an email last week that he and City Manager Adam Brown met with Morales in March. He sought help from city officials in identifying which properties would potentially support the project and also asked them to keep the project confidential.

In a subsequent meeting, Cummings said Morales told them that he had received funding for the project and that he had the Red Lion under an earnest money agreement.

“At that meeting, I asked him since he had received funding for the project if we could release this information, and again he asked us for confidentiality,” Cummings said.

More information regarding the delay came to light during the Ontario City Council meeting on June 15.

During the public comment portion of that meeting, Morales apologized to the council for “the gap in communication regarding the project,” and subsequently asked the city to make a decision on whether to support the project saying he could answer any questions they had.

Questioning what support looks like

Councilor John Kirby suggested that because the council lacked enough information, they would need at least two to three months to consider “if you get us all the correct info and then get on the agenda and go through the proper channels.”

At this, Morales reiterated the deadline constraints set forth by the Legislature, and apologized for his own misunderstanding on the City Council needing to OK the project. He said the only thing being asked of the elected body was to “support the project to move forward.”

“Lesson learned,” Morales said. “In hindsight, with future projects, we intend to do a much better job in communicating with the City Council and working with members of our city.”

City Attorney Larry Sullivan asked Morales what kind of support he was looking for, and if the city didn’t give the approval how it would effect his ability to get funding, also clarifying whether it was a private transaction.

Morales said it was not a private transaction because a public entity — the Oregon Community Foundation — is in charge of the purchase. He further explained that EUVALCREE’s role in the facility would be to manage it and see that it is used for its intended purpose.

He also said support would only need to be in the form of a letter.

Amending the agenda

Kirby tried to call for the order of business to continue.

“We can’t act,” he said.

However, Councilor Freddy Rodriguez said all that was needed was a motion to add it to the agenda.

Councilor Michael Braden made the motion to amend the agenda to add Project Turnkey letter of support, which was seconded by Councilor Ken Hart.

Kirby balked.

“This has been handled awkwardly all the way through,” he said. “Let’s clear our plate and have him come back next year.”

However, Braden said he thought the council should consider a letter of support.

“I believe the time sensitivity imposed by the state is getting us to act in an untimely manner,” he said.

The motion passed, with Kirby and Councilor Sam Baker voting no.

As the discussion was already underway, Mayor Riley Hill suggested bumping the agenda item up to the current discussion.

Discussing the project

Kirby was the first to take the matter up, pointing out buffer zones that had been set up for the marijuana industry, including those from dispensaries to residential areas. He questioned whether having such a facility across from an existing dispensary, Hot Box Farms, was in line with the city’s buffer.

He also pointed out that the area may already be a high-density traffic area, stating that another housing project that will be constructed in the nearby vicinity has been providing the city information.

“Our community does need housing and you’re arm twisting and quite frankly, I don’t like it,” Kirby said.

Rodriguez asked whether the project would support individuals in need in the community or whether people would be coming to the facility from other areas of the state.

Morales said the facility would serve “basic community needs, and the various and differing needs of foster kids, victims of domestic violence, sex trafficking and other vulnerable populations in our community and other families within DHS.”

A follow up email from Sunny Pettit, communications office for the Oregon Department of Human Services, further clarifies that the project "could include Department of Human Services programs that use contracted partners to offer short-term emergency housing support for families.”

Councilors asked whether he had contacted nearby businesses. Morales said they reached out to everyone in a three-block radius and that the general consensus was acceptance as long as the project “remained incognito and appears to be operating as a hotel.”

Hill asked whether the city would lose property and transient occupancy taxes. Morales said that EUVALCREE “will compensate” the city if the council feels that is necessary due to a loss of revenue.

According to the Malheur County Assessor’s Office, the assessed value of the property is $53,990. The levy rate is 15.3858% per $1,000, making those taxes about $8,300 annually.

According to information from Ontario Finance Director Kari Ott, TOT taxes received for that property since it opened in November of 2016 have totaled property totaled $251,444, with $55,243 of that having been received since July of 2020.

Avoiding pushback

Some councilors worried over pushback from citizens if they approve a project such as this with no community input, with Braden noting that they got pushback on the tiny homes project. He added that this was a similar project — one that is not the city’s but needs its support.

“I’m asking myself, ‘Do I support the outcomes of this project, as I did the tiny homes?’ I do. I think the causes are worthwhile for our city to support or endorse,” he said, adding that while the location might not be ideal, it was still an opportunity to invest $3.5 million into the community.

Ken Hart made the following motion.

“The Ontario City Council supports the work of EUVALCREE and the Oregon Community Foundation to help the vulnerable children of our community. The support of this specific property is predicated on EUVALCREE conducting a public hearing of the nearby property owners and that the new property use is in compliance with all other zoning requirements.

Baker seconded the motion, and it eventually passed unanimously, but not without further discussion, circulating around.

This time discussion was clarifying that EUVALCREE would be conducting the hearing on its own, and reporting back to the city council as soon as possible.

The next Ontario City Council meeting is July 13.

A request for comment from Morales regarding when and where the public hearing will be was not returned by presstime.

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