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Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy speaks about University, City of Eugene relationship (with audio)

Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy sat down with the Emerald to talk about the relationship between the Eugene community and University students and the future of the City of Eugene. This Q&A was edited for clarity and brevity. Click here to listen to the audio.

ODE: What do you think University students should know about community politics?

KP: I want them to know I don’t view them as guests. I don’t view them as people who are just sort of transient in our community. We have a permanent student body that lives here, and many of them are here for four years or more. That’s as much as anybody else in the community lives here, so I really think of them not as a separate entity, but as an important part of our community. As you know, we knock on students’ doors to welcome them to our community, to let them know that we think of them as part of our community — and at the same time say to them that they’re part of our community, so they have some of the responsibilities that the rest of the community has about how we live together, how we respect each other and how we help each other out. And we do already have a whole lot of that. We have so many students who do volunteer work all over the community, and we have so many students who in their study life, like those in the Allied Arts and Architecture Department, who help us with many planning city projects and ways to look at things. So, we benefit as a community from having students who are learning and students who have a lot of expertise to give to our community.

By the same token, of course, like in the West University neighborhood, we have maybe 99 percent non-owner-occupied housing. That presents us with kind of a unique situation of having a neighborhood that does not have oversight by the University that is predominantly students, and yet doesn’t have that same sense of ownership as people do when you own a house, or don’t have the same kind of parameters you might feel when you have the family next door who says “Yeah, nice, but don’t party too late” or whatever. That presents a unique situation for us in terms of how we live together and what our expectations are. I don’t expect bad behavior at all; I just think when you live around a lot of other young people who are exuberant and enjoying their college years, sometimes you have some exuberance that becomes somewhat of a public safety issue and somewhat of a health issue for them, in terms of drinking issues. Those are things that we have town-and-gown committee trying to work on: How we help that interface between students and our general public, how we work and plan together to have it be a great experience for students while they’re here and a great experience for the community to have them here. I’d feel remiss if I didn’t say that in a city such as ours, we have to recognize not only the value of all the students and their participation in our community, but really the huge economic role the whole University plays in the life of our community.

What makes you most proud about the City of Eugene?

One of the things that some other communities would give their eye teeth for is to have as many people involved in community decisions as we have in Eugene. It’s painful sometimes, but that’s really the nature of real, robust discussion. I think we’re really good at very robust discussions about very important issues. You win some, you lose some, but they’re very worthy. I also think we’re an incredibly humane and caring community. We struggle all the time to be better than we are because we see people among us all the time who still care around some pretty old hates and prejudices, but we strive as a community, as you may or may not know, to be a human rights community where we really try to uphold the human rights commitments that the United Nations has. That’s economic equality and social equality and all those kinds of things everybody should have the opportunity to do. Of course, I don’t know if human beings ever get to be what we all think we should be, but I’m proud of this community for trying a lot.

Why do you think a lot of students don’t get involved in local politics?

I think students do pay attention when it’s something that immediately affects them, but their lives are very busy. They’re in a period of their lives where this is their first foray out into more independent life. They are with a cohort of others having that same experience. They’re busy trying to fulfill their school responsibilities. They’re busy trying to do their extracurricular activities. They think of themselves as pretty transitory, but I think if you live here for four years, you live here. We have to get better at conveying that message, but I think it will always be a bit of a struggle. I don’t forget; I went to Western Michigan University and lived in Kalamazoo and I probably didn’t have much interface with the city the whole four years I was in college there, so I do get how this is. I just think that because we have such opportunity to learn from each other and some really important issues that we share, I welcome student engagement at every level.

There’s a lot of construction going on — what’s Eugene going to look like in ten years?

You want a vital community that has places for people to work and things for people to do. At the same time, most of us who live here and probably most of you who go to school here like being here because of the livability of the community. The beauty of the area, how easy it is to get to the mountains, to get to the ocean, our bike paths, our rivers, all of the things that make this a great place to live. Trying to have a healthy economy and not become Anywhere, USA, is something I care deeply about and it’s always a balancing act. We always have strongly held opinions about when you aren’t growing enough and when you’re growing too much. I think those discussions are valuable. I think they’ve been valuable to this community for a long time, because it’s really allowed us to hold on to ourselves as we try to move into the future. I do think there is a piece of what the University is doing in terms of some of the research and innovation that’s coming out of the University that spins jobs out into our community has a lot to do with some of the future economic opportunities for our community. That partnership, in terms of jobs and the vitality of Eugene, is a really important partnership.

What do you think Eugene would look like without the University?

That’s a really good question because it’s never been — we’ve always been together. The interesting thing about Eugene, unlike Corvallis, is that almost everything about Corvallis, I think, is connected to the University — I mean, they’re one. I don’t think we’ve ever been one. Our original economy here, which still lives out its pattern today, is we were an extraction-based economy. The people who vested early in this community and built many of the things that make this community were timber folks, sand and gravel folks and those extraction entities. Some of our character is over time, the pull and tug between those extraction-based, invested-in-the-community people, and the University that really brings in discussions about environment and discussion about peace and discussions about all the major issues.

I think in some ways, Eugene plays out with its reputation of being morally liberal. I bet you and I both know that we’re not as wildly liberal as our reputation. I think our engagement gives us that reputation. But I would say over time, we played out most of the major issues of the country: the big environmental movement for this state, a lot of it came out of this area, the anti-war movement, a lot of it came out of this area. You have those major issues of the country playing out here in Eugene all the time. Certainly, that kind of high level of thought, encouraged and sponsored at the University, creates a lot of the participation for those big discussions and those gut-wrenching things that we’ve gone through historically in this country.

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Tyree Harris

Tyree Harris