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Downtown

Homeless camp adds steam to the Ashland pressure cooker —

The subject line often makes it clear that a particular — e-mail may require a little more attention than others. But some are stealth — e-mails, seemingly innocuous until you open them or read down a ways when — they explode like a Molotov cocktail.

This was one of those e-mails.

Beginning politely enough, it quickly made its point: — Things had gone too far. Reading a few more lines and it was apparent — that the e-mail's author was angry. He said he represented a powder keg — of emotion bubbling under the tourist-dotted streets of downtown Ashland.

The intensity and almost quiet determination of the e-mail — singed my eyebrows. I extended an invitation to the author to meet with — me and discuss his concerns. He accepted. For the rest of this article, — let's call him Mike.

Meeting Mike

Mike doesn't want his name mentioned in any news article — right now. At least not yet. But, he's convinced that he, and many others — like him, will have to go public soon. He is reticent, he says, because — he fears bricks through the window of his store, local customers boycotting — his business and other forms of public backlash.

"I read the cop log in your paper," he told me. "Have — you seen how often the downtown Starbucks gets vandalized? That's how — it is around here."

Mike's concern is that things have just gone way too far — in good old liberal Ashland. The growing number of "Plazoids" is a concern. — Panhandlers in front of businesses is another concern. So-called "musicians" — playing loudly - and often badly - directly in front of storefronts is — another concern. These are all, of course, nothing new. Mike knows that. — So do those running the city.

Ashland Administrative Secretary Fran Berteau says complaints — about these things come across her desk fairly regularly.

"Last year it was probably a bit more so," she says. "Once — it warms up, it will heat up again."

Overall, however, it's nothing new, she says.

But Mike thinks the downtown is doing its own impersonation — of Mount St. Helens - boiling, brewing, spewing some occasional pressure — and most importantly signaling a serious eruption that lies beneath the — surface.

He points to the drop in the number of tourist visits — to Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year as evidence. He says the city — has gotten letters from disgruntled tourists and fretting business owners, — as has the festival and the Chamber of Commerce.

"I bet you have too," he says.

He's right. We have. Not waves mind you, but a trickle — of frustrated visitors who are fed up with panhandlers, nudists and transients — who make them uncomfortable as they come for a weekend of plays, gourmet — meals, wine tasting and drives in the country.

The Chamber of Commerce did not return either an e-mail — or a phone call asking for comment about the issue.

City administrator Gino Grimaldi isn't alarmed, he says.

"I know it's out there and I know it's a concern, but — it's not a topic of conversation," Grimaldi says.

Mike says that if it isn't obvious now, it will be when — talk of a homeless camp heats up again. This single issue is the flash — point to Mike.

The homeless camp, he says, will do nothing but invite — an explosion of all the aforementioned problems, which will in turn ensure — a mass exodus of the tourists.

The entire ethos of the city is a delicate balance. The — very qualities that make the city the mystical theatrical place that it — is can also be confused with less charming behavior, like aggressive panhandling, — vandalism and petty theft.

OSF officials share some of Mike's concern, according — to Amy Richard, OSF media relations manager.

"We are most concerned with people going to their lodging," — Richard says, "and the theater and their restaurants and going to the — park and hopefully have a pleasant time doing so."

The festival, which does an extensive survey of its audiences — each year, has "piles and piles," of comments they are currently sorting — through, according to Richard.

"We've heard a few comments about the panhandlers in town — and that sort of thing," Richard says. "There is concern that we hear — what people are saying and hope to address it and do something about it, — but we haven't heard this is an overwhelming concern."

Richard says past topics like the construction on Siskiyou — or smoke from forest fires also raised concern.

"It's hard to know exactly," she says.

The flash point

Mike's an entertaining guy who regales me with stories — of passing out money to homeless people late at night and heading to the — forests years ago to protest what he views as excessive logging. He explains — how he came to Ashland specifically to be a liberal business owner. He — loves the politics, embraces the emphasis on the environment and welcomes — intense scrutiny from the public.

"I'm no corporate business type," he says with arms outstretched, — inviting my scrutiny. He certainly doesn't look it - clad in jeans, an — earring in his ear, tattoo on his arm. His speech is punctuated with less — than banker-type words. "But this whole thing could crumble and take us — all with it."

Ashland has always lived near the edge of the cliff of — reasonableness. The homeless camp is an open invitation for freeloaders — from across the country to journey here, Mike says. The camp will hurl — the entire local economy off the cliff.

Whether Mike speaks for many or an anxious few remains — uncertain. What Mike hopes is that very soon people will defend what they — have worked for and stop the homeless camp idea.

Helping our local homeless is great, Mike says. Building — a Mecca for people to come and live off the government while taxpaying — businesses are threatened is an entirely different matter.