UNION & MULTNOMAH COUNTIES – Oregon’s urban-rural divide, in particular the rift between East and West, is as obvious as it is divisive. Nonetheless, local leadership from both sides of the Cascades are continuing their efforts to bridge the gap and put aside any judgments.
Referred to as the Commissioner Exchange by Union County Commissioner Paul Anderes and originally thought up by Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, the project involves both commissioners touring each other’s respective counties, observing their unique attributes, and discussing mutual or overlapping issues as part of an effort to, hopefully, increase connectivity and understanding between Oregon’s different populations. Elkhorn Media Group spoke with Anderes and Jayapal during the latter’s visit to Union County back in July. A more detailed breakdown of Jayapal’s visit along with more information on the project as a whole can be found in our previous article, here.
Commissioner Anderes recently finished his trip to Multnomah County as part of the second half of the exchange and had quite a few observations about Oregon’s urban hub. Beginning his visit was a tour of the Multnomah County offices and a realization of just how large they are, both in physical scale and in the scale of operations. While it’s no secret that Multnomah County’s higher population and tax base means a larger county government with more assets, the sheer difference in resources between it and Union County was clearly demonstrated as Anderes observed during a commission meeting:
“The one thing that did strike me, at that meeting, they spent in one motion fifteen percent of Union Counties entire budget, the equivalent of. They spent it on a program called No Strangers. Basically, it’s a program to welcome immigrants. They have a fairly large immigrant population.”
For another point of reference, Anderes also observed that the county spent one hundred and five million dollars on homeless services for one week alone. This brings up the subject of the scale of homelessness and mental health resources in Union County vs Multnomah County. Anderes was able to tour a homelessness/addiction and behavioral health facility that, according to staff, treats roughly one hundred people a day during four 25 patient shifts. The staff estimate the population of potential patients to be calculated at around six thousand but believe it to be closer to eight to ten thousand. Anderes, after comparing the numbers with the estimated Union County population in the same three categories (homeless, addicted, mentally ill) commented the following:
“So, I ran their numbers and our numbers and that would be somewhere in the range of two hundred and fifty to three hundred people in Union County, which I don’t think is unreasonable to put in one of those three categories. I’m not trying to paint us in a bad light, but we have an equivalent problem unfortunately, but I think ours is less visible.”
Of course, this isn’t meant to demonize Union County’s status or downplay Multnomah County’s issues, but, as is the spirit of the entire exchange, find a common ground between the counties through observing what problems they’re dealing with and how they’re solving them. To this end, Anderes was able to visit with State Representative Khanh Pham during a walking tour of an area undergoing redevelopment and also meet with Multnomah County Commission Chair Jessica Vega Pederson.
Other highlights included a stop at a local farm and a visit to Portland’s art and culinary scene. For his observations on the farm, Anderes describes it best:
“I toured a farm that I would consider not as rural as Union County, but, in comparison, pretty rural. The farm not only provides an incubator for young farmers, but it also provides food banks, and they do a number of farmers markets as well. It was really interesting seeing the model they’ve got and trying to develop more, especially with farmers of color.”
Looking back at the metro area, Anderes specifically visited Mercado, a “community economic development initiative,” as described on their official website, which serves as both a cultural and artistic hub and, as Anderes personally described it, “a Hispanic, Latinx, incubator for business as well as food carts.” The organizers allow businesses to rent a space within the Mercado for up to a year, providing marketing, infrastructure and helping the new business owners establish a client base before moving on to a permanent location. Part of the process involves organizing the business, especially the food carts, into unique pods, with Anderes commenting:
“I met with their public official that really developed their program and he went through the origins of it, what they look for, and how they wrote their guidebook for food cart pods. Really informative and I think it’s probably something we could do here relatively easily if we had a person that wanted to develop that.”
As an aside, this was also the first time he’d tried Cuban Food by his own account. Of course, the visit wasn’t just to show off the brighter parts of Multnomah County and celebrate its diversity. Just prior to concluding the exchange, commissioner Jayapal deliberately showed Anderes some of the more run-down neighborhoods of the county. Anderes’ observation was that these areas were in quite bad shape, but that overall, the situation in the county isn’t as dire as he was led to believe by the discourse in news and social media. As he explained:
“I mean, there’s some places that are in very rough shape, there’s no other way to describe it, but there’s also some very beautiful neighborhoods, some very vibrant neighborhoods that are functioning very well. My perception of how bad the problem was changed by visiting down there. Like I say, there were some tough neighborhoods we went through, homelessness, addiction, RVs have been either abandoned or semi-abandoned, but it was certainly not the perception that I had of that area.”
Again, the point is not to prove that one county, or area of the state, is definitively superior or inferior to the other, but to allow for each county’s respective leadership to better understand each other’s situation, learn from those situations, and use that knowledge to better inform the greater political discourse. As Anderes gave an example of:
“It was a great experience. I learned a tremendous amount and we had some tough conversations. We had conversations about guns and the shootings in Portland, and Eastern Oregonians really wanting, and have a right, to own guns, and where do you find that happy median, and where do you find that balance without infringing on people’s rights.”
As for what’s next, the two commissioners have thrown around the idea of organizing additional exchanges, though their busy schedules have put this off for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, The Association of Oregon Counties is working on its own official Membership Exchange Program, which both Anderes and Jayapal are working to help inform. Through both the fun sightseeing of local culture and the hard conversations on state issues, the commissioners have remained optimistic about what the project could mean for Oregon going forward, with a statement from Anderes best summarizing the conclusion of the project:
“It was so good, both when she was here and when I was able to go to Multnomah County. We’ve gotten to the point now where we joke that the two of us are going to single handedly bridge the urban-rural divide. I know I learned an awful lot both being in Multnomah County but also hosting her in Union County.”
The previous article on the commissioner exchange and Jayapal’s visit to Union County can be found at https://elkhornmediagroup.com/from-multnomah-county-to-union-county-mending-the-east-west-divide-one-visit-at-a-time/