The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has asked the city of Ashland to remove a broken fountain and a cement planter from a small plaza in front of the Black Swan Theatre downtown where panhandlers often gather.
The intent is to open up the area to allow more organized activities in the space, which is called Chautauqua Square, said OSF Executive Director Cynthia Rider.
The city-owned fountain on the OSF-controlled site has been broken for many years and holds no water. City officials estimated repairs would cost $10,000 to $15,000.
A city planter along the sidewalk at the corner of Main and Pioneer streets is a favorite sitting area for homeless people, travelers, panhandlers and musicians.
Pedestrians walking on the sidewalk pass between a larger OSF planter on one side and the city planter, which borders Main Street.
"There's a traffic congestion problem," Rider told Ashland city councilors earlier this month when asking for removal of the planter and fountain. "It narrows there and forces groups of people into a small, narrow space."
City officials have no immediate plans to remove the planter or fountain. Councilors would likely weigh in on the matter, Ashland Finance and Administrative Services Director Lee Tuneberg said this week.
City crews could tear out the planter and fountain themselves. But if councilors want the fountain to be removed whole so it can be used elsewhere, the city likely would need to hire someone else to do that work, City Administrator Dave Kanner said.
Rider said panhandling is intermittent at Chautauqua Square.
"It can be a problem. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't," she said. "It seems to fluctuate. One concern we have is the space is not being used optimally. Sometimes there's nothing going on there."
OSF has suggested a variety of uses for the square, such as a food cart, coffee cart, musicians and mini-performances.
Rider said OSF welcomes suggestions from the community.
"There are not a lot of good activities there to make it more active. Our goal is to make it a lot more welcoming and inviting," she said.
In 2012, before Rider accepted the OSF executive director post, then-Executive Director Paul Nicholson sent a letter to city officials saying the behavior of some homeless people downtown could harm the community.
Nicholson wrote that while some people were trying to escape homelessness, others chose to be disruptive and tended to congregate in front of the Black Swan Theatre, often under the influence of intoxicants.
Nicholson said that some homeless people harassed OSF patrons and employees and intimidated people by aggressively asking for money. That led many people to avoid the sidewalk and Chautauqua Square. Some patrons said they were reluctant to return to Ashland.
Earlier this week, a homeless traveler who gave his name as David "Semper Fidelis" was sitting on the cement planter with a cardboard sign reading "Hungry Broke and Ugly." He said he had been in the Marines during the Vietnam War. Semper fidelis is Latin for "always faithful" and is the Marines' slogan.
He said it would be wrong for the city to take out the planter because people enjoy seeing vegetation and flowers.
"I think if they took a lot of this out it would make it plain," he said, adding that people would also lose a place to sit.
Joshua Allen Potthoff, a young homeless man with a sign reading "Raise'n Date'n Money," was sitting on the sidewalk near Chautauqua Square this week. He said homeless people need places to sit and he would hate to see the fountain broken apart and thrown in a landfill.
"Where else are they supposed to go? Every town has a homeless population," Potthoff said.
He said most panhandlers downtown behave respectfully.
"I understand people come to see a show and they don't want to be bombarded with requests for donations. Homeless people in this city get treated well if they are respectful. People are happy to give and help out," Potthoff said.
Washington state tourist Mike White, who was walking near Chautauqua Square, said he isn't intimidated by panhandlers.
"They should get an education and a job instead of begging. Usually they just say, 'Have a nice day' and don't ask for money," said White, who comes to Ashland every year.
White said removing the planter at the corner would just cause panhandlers to shift to a different location.
His wife, Kathy, said it would be nice to have activities at Chautauqua Square.
"Musicians wouldn't be bad. But they're usually begging for money, too. There's usually a hat out," she said with a laugh.
Kathy White said she and her husband come from a small town in eastern Washington, which also had panhandlers.
"Homelessness is a larger problem that society needs to be addressing," she said.