PORTLAND, Ore. — Clackamas County is halting a plan to purchase a Quality Inn to serve as transitional housing after County Chair Tootie Smith announced at an emergency meeting Wednesday morning that she has reversed her earlier vote in favor of the purchase.
The county commissioners voted 3-2 in February to buy the building for $15.2 million, primarily using state and Metro affordable housing bond funds.
"I was elected to solve problems," Smith said at time. "This is something that this board has inherited for the last two years and as a public official we are trying to solve this problem."
The building would have been repurposed under "Project Turnkey," which converts hotels into non-congregate shelters for people who are homeless or displaced. It would have been the first converted hotel in Clackamas County.
"After much deliberation and heartfelt consideration, listening to about everybody in Clackamas County that's possible, I have decided to change my vote on Project Turnkey," Smith said at the start of Wednesday's meeting.
Smith indicated that her reversal was prompted by public feedback, and directed county staff to plan a series of public meetings to gather more input. The board of commissioners will separately convene a "blue ribbon committee" to look at ways to address homelessness, she said.
"We have heard from the public that they wish to be engaged, that they needed more time. Now you have it," she said.
Oregon Governor Tina Kotek shared a statement in response to the vote reversal:
"I'm absolutely stunned by Chair Smith's reversal today. Project Turnkey is a proven model to help Oregonians move off the streets and into stability. This sudden vote was a very disappointing step backward at a time when every leader in Oregon needs to be doing more — not less — to address our homelessness crisis."
The plan for the hotel drew opposition from businesses. The original vote in February drew more than three hours of public testimony, during which business owners argued that the hotel's location would cause a negative impact on the surrounding commercial district.
A Clackamas County business owner group called the Heart of Main Street Business Coalition released a statement applauding Smith's reversal on Wednesday. The news release said the group had partnered with other local organizations to oppose the project.
A Change.org petition against buying the motel gathered almost 2,000 signatures, highlighting some of the opposition that Smith alluded to.
"This action would negatively impact the thousands of small businesses in the vicinity as well as the residents that live here," one person wrote on the petition.
"The implementation of this homeless shelter would attract crime, open drug use, and a general sense of insecurity to a thriving business district." another wrote.
The hotel is next to a large strip mall with several businesses including a McMenamins restaurant. On Tuesday, the property's landlord filed a lawsuit against the county hoping to stop Project Turnkey. It claimed that putting transitional housing next door would violate deed restrictions suggesting it would be "Out of harmony with the restaurant operating within the shopping center."
In a statement to KGW, Smith said, "My decision was not based on the lawsuit. it was based on community input."
Smith later told KGW that the county's legal staff had looked at the purchase and officials were confident it would have worked out.
"We are going to bring in all those people who were for and against Project Turnkey, Sit them down, ask them what they want us to do," she said. "I think that was probably the first mistake, and I'll own it, the first mistake, we didn't listen to enough people to get enough buy-in to do this, so we are going to do that."
Smith also criticized Measure 110 at Wednesday's meeting and said she planned to refer an advisory measure to county voters asking "Should the legislature overturn Measure 110?"
She argued that the measure contributed to crime and homelessness in the Portland area and said addiction and mental health must be addressed before "any real success" for the homeless can be realized.
"On a personal note, I do think Project Turnkey would have done that," she added. "However, maybe that project is too early in its time and can be addressed at a later date. But for right now, Project Turnkey will not go forward as we originally had planned."
Commissioners Mark Shull and Ben West, both of whom voted against the hotel purchase, said the county should pursue other strategies to tackle homelessness and addiction.
"I hope that we, as a county, act with even more urgency after making this move," West said. "Greater speed, greater urgency, if we really feel like there's another way to do it, we have to do it now."
Commissioner Martha Schrader said she agreed that Measure 110 was a mistake, but said she wouldn't change her vote in favor of purchasing the hotel, arguing that county staff had worked to make sure it would be a drug-free community.
She said the county should have done more to engage with business leaders and the Happy Valley city council before making the original decision to move forward, but noted that the Veterans Village project has been a success despite pushback from neighbors.
Commissioner Paul Savas, who voted in favor of the purchase, was not present at Wednesday's meeting.