Derrick DePledge: Behind the News: 'There's a sense of vibrancy in Astoria'

Jan. 21—Scott Spence took on the role as Astoria city manager this month.

He served for nearly 12 years as the city manager in Lacey, Washington, a suburb of Olympia with more than five times the population of Astoria.

Spence brings an outside perspective. The last two city managers — Brett Estes and Paul Benoit — had long tenures as community development director before taking over the top job.

"I sometimes say that when you're in city government, you really are in the quality of life business," Spence said. "And so, are we providing essential services to the residents of Astoria? Are we meeting the needs of the residents and the business community? And are we actually sustaining the business community and actually making sure that they're successful?"

In an interview, Spence discussed the biggest public policy challenge facing the city and how he will define success.

Q: What have you learned about Astoria that you did not know when you applied for the job as city manager?

A: Well, I think I somewhat knew, but I think it's been magnified. I just think there is a true pride in being in Astoria — or actually even being born and raised in Astoria.

And I think that's something special. It communicates how much people care about their community and their city.

When you do have the interaction like, well, where are you from? Most places, when you travel and you say, 'Where are you from?' My assumption is people would say, 'I'm from Astoria.' They don't say, 'I'm from Portland.' They don't say I'm from the bigger city.

People know this area and the history, and there is a point of pride in that.

Q: What do you consider the biggest public policy challenges facing the city?

A: Housing clearly is an obvious issue. I'm currently confronting that myself, in trying to relocate from another state to Astoria.

And clearly Astoria is predominantly built out, and so you don't have greenfields or new housing subdivisions. So that will be the challenge.

How do you keep the vibrancy of the community, but still allow some ability for people to want to live? And people that work here. The great thing about being part of the city, you want to be able to live where you work.

So it would be great to have everyone have that opportunity.

That is a challenge and it's going to take some creativity to see how at some point you can move those margins.

Q: Astoria is a unique place and people who live here are rightly protective of its history and culture. But we've seen an ugly strain in our politics over the past few years around themes of preserving "our town," especially in the housing discussion. Coming from the outside, how do you deal with that as a leader?

A: Well, I think every community wants to preserve their quality of life.

I think when people come to an area, there is an element of what should be preserved and what should be changed. I guess, to some degree, I think that's a little bit early for me to say, kind of this is what we need to do, so to speak.

But people come here because the community is great as it is. So it's kind of interesting in terms of preserving. There is a point of saying, yeah, let's preserve what makes Astoria special. You do want to protect that.

I think there is a level of responsibility to make sure that Astoria is the community that it is because of what it's currently doing.

So I don't think you go in and disrupt that.

Q: There is sometimes a disconnect between how we see ourselves as a city and the reality. For all our vibrancy, there are still too many empty storefronts and underused properties downtown and along the river. Does Astoria need a better economic development strategy?

A: I've obviously visited Astoria before. I'm really impressed with what Astoria actually has, in terms of, you go to other communities, and you do see a lot more vacancies, a lot more buildings that are I'd say in disrepair.

There's a sense of vibrancy in Astoria. I think people should be proud of that.

The economic initiatives that have occurred prior, too, have actually helped Astoria what it currently is right now.

Clearly, you want to make sure that the business community is still successful. And if there's opportunities for future growth that can complement what is currently here, I think that would be a focus.

I think the economic direction that Astoria is on is good. You always want to make sure that there is job opportunities for people who come to Astoria.

I think what I've learned, the Hyak (Maritime) project on Tongue Point, that is unbelievable. That's great. If you can actually have a maritime industry, which is part of Astoria's history, I mean, that's great.

I think those opportunities are great to be able to build on and leverage.

Q: How are you going to define success in this role?

A: I sometimes say that when you're in city government, you really are in the quality of life business.

And so, are we providing essential services to the residents of Astoria? Are we meeting the needs of the residents and the business community? And are we actually sustaining the business community and actually making sure that they're successful?

I think, when we talk about economic sustainability, you want to make sure that the businesses that are currently here are being successful. So what can we do in partnership as the city government to make sure that they're being successful?

We're not only a partner, but we have a role, too, to make sure that we're creating a higher standard of life.

Q: What do you want people to know about you that they may not already?

A: I genuinely care about public service. I believe city government can be a force of good. I think it's an essential part of being a community.

I see government as being a partner with, really, the residents, the business community and trying to, again, preserve the quality of life that people enjoy here. And raise the quality of life for Astorians.