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'We need to get honest and real'

Ashland is not growing, its economy is too focused on one thing — tourism — it’s way too expensive to buy or build a house, its utilities and fees are out of control, it’s crammed with empty second homes — and these issues have been hashed over for years.

Such were the complaints (with hoped-for remedies) of a dozen folks at a Conversation in the Park, held by City Councilor and mayoral candidate Tonya Graham, Sunday morning in Railroad Park — but there was a new twist.

Directly behind the group was a fence that once memorialized scores of Black people who died in police custody, but which had recently been trashed and carted away.

At the end of the gathering, Graham pointed out the elephant in the park, noting, “That memorial was so powerful and moving. I stopped at each T-shirt and had a visceral response to it — and we’re already broken open (from the pandemic), but people already have gotten out their art supplies and reclaimed the space. This is the community I moved to and love. In times of disruption and change, we take care of each other. We don’t let ourselves be bullied.”

The scrappy-looking new signs said, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we are seeds,” and “Black is not a crime,” and “You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire.”

Like the earlier memorial, the new one bade bicyclists and walkers on the path to “Say Their Names.” Already posted are the names of Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbury, and George Floyd, whose killing in Minneapolis triggered global outrage. Bland was pulled over in Texas for not signaling, jailed for resisting arrest and later found hanged in her cell. Arbery was shot dead in Georgia, while jogging, a killer ignored for months until it went viral on the internet.

Ashland resident Carolyn Shaffer said “righteous anger is felt” from such offenses, followed by vitriol, then war, but “creativity (from recreating the fence) is the salvation.”

Another citizen said the vandalism of the Black Lives Matter display shows “a lot of pain and anger,” but “it’s awesome that artists are again making the effort to reach out to the community.”

While the city works on its many challenges, said Graham, everyone should keep in mind that we don’t have a lot of money to “pry loose” — and that, with the double whammy of the economic crash and pandemic, “the anxiety level is really high” and it’s easier for people to feel fearful.

When the City Council recently passed its Social Equity and Racial Justice resolution, a group of BIPOC folks said they felt they weren’t involved enough, she said, and “We have to realize people are all under a higher level of basic stress so it’s easier to become fearful — so as community leaders, we have to be careful not to bring in fear as we go through a lot of changes.”

Graham said the resolution was only a “first step in a difficult conversation. We may have disagreement on how to take the steps toward equity. It’s an anxiety-ridden moment in time and we all have to be patient.”

A “safe space” to comment to her, can always be found on her website, she said, adding, “We should give compassion to people, whether or not they want it.”

Ashland is in a “state of disruption” now but it’s also an opportunity to refocus on where the town should be in 10 or 20 years, while keeping in mind that the city budget has virtually no reserves — and ways must be found to meet rising costs of PERS (retirement) and health care.

“We have to decide what’s important and fund it,” she said. “We need to get honest and real about our financial situation In our system, we can come together and advocate, seek dialog and engagement, not make hard-edged demands.”

Parks Commissioner Jim Lewis told the group that, in a decade or two, he wants to see Ashland keep good schools and parks and create diverse kinds of jobs so people can raise families here — and not become a retirement community.

The key to that, said Graham, is the long-pursued goal of affordable housing, along with living wage jobs to buy homes.

Former City Councilor Karen Smith said she’s concerned about “jamming more people in” to town and, in 20 years, would like to see it more sustainability and livability — but controlling growth is a “dilemma.”

Graham said that ironically much of the sustainability technology adds to the cost of housing but one step, the 2017 cottage housing ordinance, allows simpler, cheaper housing and is built for pedestrians, not a bunch of cars and parking spaces.

The problem of expensive vacation homes sitting empty most of the year continues to “get worse,” she said.

Much commercial space is also owned by out-of-town landlords and the city has been busy informing them of the crisis for small business owners with the collapse of the tourist economy here, she said. The city is imploring landlords to rein in rents and refrain from evictions, but the city has no power to make them comply, she added.

Graham “would love” to provide financial help for struggling small business, she said, and has researched other cities who’ve done so. “If I had a couple million dollars in reserves, I would give out money, but we don’t have it, because of financial decisions made before.

Mayoral candidate Tonya Graham meets with residents Sunday at the Ashland Railroad Park. Photo by Denise Baratta