In the summer of 1968, then-mayor Vern Miller launched a
campaign for a
bond election on a Salem Civic Center, composed of a city
hall, library, police and central fire station.
A similar measure had been defeated by the voters two years
earlier. Mayor Miller was advised against bringing the issue
back to the voters so soon. But a property tax limitation
was scheduled for the Fall ballot, and the mayor feared that
if it passed, it would block any civic center campaign for
the foreseeable future.
Salem's city hall had been built in the 1890s for a city
of 4,000. Its
public library was built in 1914 and had only 4 parking spaces.
At this time, Salem's population was over 60,000 people. Additionally,
city services were scattered in satellite offices due to the
size limitations of the existing city hall and the need to
provide services to the growing population. Clearly, new civic
buildings were needed.
To defuse the idea that the civic center initiative was coming
government, Mayor Miller appointed a 26-member campaign committee
composed of people who were not identified with city politics.
He asked Wes Sullivan, news editor of The Oregon Statesman
newspaper, to be chairman.
The first committee meeting was held on a sweltering summer
night in a
crowded room in the old city hall, with Sullivan asking his
members to mark a date on their calendars in 1972 when they
would hold a victory dinner in the auditorium of the new Salem
The City Council vowed to let the new committee have full
control over the campaign. Gerry Frank was finance chairman
of the campaign. He was asked to raise $8,200 which he promptly
did. Thus, the campaign had buttons, fliers and all the fiscal
help it needed. The committee started by using a city bus
to tour nine possible sites for the new civic center complex.
The almost unanimous conclusion was to build the civic center
south from the downtown area between Commercial and Liberty
streets. This was the site favored by Mayor Miller too. However,
it was also the site rejected by the voters at the previous
election. The lone committee member opposing that site was
Bill Mainwaring, the editor and publisher of the Capital
Journal newspaper. He wanted a site along Mill Creek,
on the north side of the downtown. This posed a problem for
the committee. To override him was to risk opposition from
one of the two local daily newspapers.
As a compromise, the committee decided to put both sites
on the ballot and let the voters decide on the site was well
as on the $6 million bond issue to fund the new civic center.
The City Council, while favoring the southern site, agreed
to abide by the voters' decision.
Summer normally is a bad time to run an election campaign,
but the summer of 1968 was full of campaign activity. Again,
in an attempt to make it a ``grass roots'' effort, it was
decided to hold block parties in each of the 1,400 blocks
in Salem, to invite public comment and participation.
Fifty Long Play records were cut of Mayor Miller's appeal
to the voters. Huge drop cards were printed showing the proposed
buildings that were shown to accompany the recorded message
from the Mayor. Campaign representatives volunteered to attend
each block party. It turned out that people didn't want their
neighbors inside their homes, so only 100 block parties were
held. But the effort paid off in convincing the public that
the campaign was sincere in asking voter opinion.
The election had to be held on the 30th of September, in
order to allow
time for the bonds to be sold before the Fall election and
imposition of the property tax limitation. As the date approached,
the earlier pessimism turned to optimism. A Jaycee poll showed
that voters were ready to accept the bond issue. It was noted
by some cynics that getting the public to debate which of
two sites for the civic center assumed the passage of the
bond issue itself.
When the votes were counted, the bond issue had passed by
about 8,000 to 5,000, and the southern site was selected.
(It turned out that voters chose the site closest to where
they lived, and there were more votes in the south of Salem
than in the north.)
The campaign had promised civic center buildings faced with
stone and wood. It turned out that there was money enough
only for concrete facing, and even with that, there wasn't
enough bond money to fully equip the buildings. So a second
campaign, for another $2.2million had to be launched a year
or two later.
However, all the records from the initial campaign were available,
including the names of the thousands of people who had supported
the earlier campaign. The get-out-the-vote campaign focused
on those supporters, and the supplemental funds were approved.
The Civic Center ``anchor on the south'' of the Salem downtown
resulted in a sweeping urban renewal of areas to the east
of the Civic
Center, all the way to Willamette University. In 1970, a major
the downtown was initiated, leading to the sky bridges and
The Salem Civic Center, 30 years old as of this writing,
keystone in building one of the most beautiful and functional
city centers in Oregon.
Written by Wes Sullivan
Personal knowledge of the civic center complex campaign
by its Chairman, Wesley Sullivan written, June, 2002