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A crowd of more than 125 people was on hand Monday at Lincoln Elementary School for a public forum on a possible urban renewal district for South Corvallis.

Corvallis is a tough place to make a case for an urban renewal district. The city's voters traditionally have been skeptical of proposals to create these districts, which have been important tools for other Oregon communities seeking ways to redevelop areas in need of fresh investment.

Part of that skepticism comes from the sheer complexity of urban renewal, in particular the complicated manner in which the districts are funded. And part of it, we suspect, is just a general lack of understanding of how such an urban renewal district could make a big difference in a community. (A trip to downtown Albany might help with that, but we'll return later to that point.)

In any event, that skepticism has played a role in scuttling previous plans for urban renewal districts in the city: The city's charter requires that any proposal to create such a district must be approved by voters. In 2009, city voters rejected a proposal to create a district that would have included downtown and parts of South Corvallis.

Now, city officials are floating a promising new plan for an urban renewal district in South Corvallis. The proposal, as it is currently drawn up, would help create a neighborhood center that would include housing, a grocery store, a food business incubator, other small businesses and a space for community gatherings. Coupled with a rebuilt Lincoln School, for which Corvallis School District voters approved funding this May, the district could provide the spark to spur additional investment in South Corvallis. 

There's certainly interest in the plan: About 125 residents attended a Monday night open house about the project. The event included remarks from Corvallis City Manager Mark Shepard and Elaine Howard, who is serving as the lead consultant on the project.

The Monday event was a start. But city officials — including the nine members of the City Council — will need to grab every possible opportunity to explain the project, to answer questions and to keep a sharp eye out for misinformation.

Let's give the city a hand here: The question that was floated most often at Monday's open house was whether an urban renewal district would increase property taxes in the district.

Here's the answer: No.

Urban renewal creates money for public projects through a system called tax-increment financing. The district itself imposes no new taxes. But when a renewal zone is designated, any additional tax money that's created because of increasing property values in the district is earmarked for new projects within the district.

There is a trade-off: Setting aside that additional money for the district means that it's not available to be used in other branches of government. (It's worth noting, however, that one of those governmental branches, school districts, is reimbursed by the state for money it would have collected from the rise in property values.) 

Over time, an urban renewal district can gather enough funding to bankroll big-ticket projects. Corvallis residents need look no further than Albany, where urban renewal helped revitalize that city's downtown. In fact, Albany's urban renewal district (dubbed the Central Albany Revitalization Area) paid for some $8 million of a just-completed $10 million project to redo downtown streets and sidewalks.

An urban renewal district, done right, might be able to do something similar in South Corvallis, where residents have waited for more than two decades for major redevelopment. But the decision to approve the district will have to be made by voters who live in other areas of the city as well.

All the more reason why city officials need to prepared with detailed explanations and patient answers to tough questions that will be raised again and again. We're excited by the possibilities an urban renewal district could unlock for South Corvallis. But if history is any indication, this could be a tough sell to voters. (mm)

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