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Council Corner: Making downtown more welcoming

In the past several weeks I have experienced several troubling incidences that have led me to question what we can do to make our downtown core a safer and more welcoming place for all.

Recently a friend was walking my dog downtown when another dog, uncontrolled by his owner, attacked my dog. Luckily neither my pup or friend was seriously hurt.

Recently I was showing my brother-in-law the town. As we walked by City Hall, a number of young people were gathered. One young woman was selling jewelry. She said, "Hey, look at my stuff." I said, “Thanks, but I am not interested right now.”

The young man next to her said, "Hey, you [expletive], you could afford to buy something," and postured in my path, at first not letting us pass.

I have bragged about our wonderful city many times and felt embarrassed and shamed. This is not how I wanted my family to view Ashland. I also felt that as a city councilor I was somehow letting the city down by not being more active in working to find a solution to making the downtown a place people would want to be.

In the past several days I have spoken with a number of parents, shop workers and city officials to get a better idea of how they see our town. What I have heard consistently is that they are concerned and want to see the city council look at ways to bring more civility to the town. Having the sidewalks blocked, abusive and disrespectful behavior, bullying and aggressive dogs (often unleashed) should not be tolerated from anyone.

So what can we do? What should we do?

I have lived in this town long enough to know that we have many types of people who come through our town. I certainly believe in being respectful to our visitors, but I also expect our visitors, no matter what their means, to be respectful to our town.

We want to give a hand up to those in need and provide citizens with services such as the Food Bank, mental health programs, affordable housing and a chance to gain the skills for employment. But this does not mean that we are obligated to see our town diminished by those who have no stake in what happens to our city.

I believe we are at a critical point in keeping our town’s reputation as a place that tourists want to visit and parents feel safe in bringing their children. I believe it is time to act. I have asked the City Council to have a study session on this issue in the coming weeks.

There are many ideas for how to create a better environment that can be considered. These range from programs that give a hand up to those in need as well as a more consistent on-the-street police presence with enforcement of existing ordinances.

There may be other ideas that have merit. One proposal or example is excluding dogs from the downtown area who have not had rabies vaccinations or been licensed. This is both a health and safety issue for the animals as well as anyone who might get bitten by an animal that cannot be located.

The state of Oregon passed a law that prohibits smoking within 10 feet of a door, a window that opens or a vent. Currently this law is not effectively enforced.The City Council can pass an ordinance to allow better enforcement of this law. This would help protect the health of workers and those dining in outside seating, and allow restaurants to open windows without diners having in breathe in a variety of smoke.

These are just a few ideas, and I am sure many other options can be explored.The tourist industry is a vital part of our economy and tax base. Social media is becoming ever more important in decisions made by future visitors. We want Yelp and Trip Advisor to continue to encourage visitors to visit our beautiful town and, perhaps even more importantly, we want all of our citizens to love coming downtown and feel good about bringing their children.

Stefani Seffinger is a member of the Ashland City Council.