SLO residents show up in record numbers to help plan city priorities at forum

Mayor Heidi Harmon reviews a topic board at the San Luis Obispo Community Forum. Residents and participants had a chance to vote on a wide variety of proposed community projects and causes.
Mayor Heidi Harmon reviews a topic board at the San Luis Obispo Community Forum. Residents and participants had a chance to vote on a wide variety of proposed community projects and causes. nwilson@thetribunenews.com

In a packed auditorium that covered two wings of the Ludwick Community Center on Tuesday, the San Luis Obispo City Council heard from dozens of speakers lobbying for city spending on a range of needs — housing, mental health, bike safety, street lighting in neighborhoods around Cal Poly, unfunded liability and more.

The annual community workshop and goal-setting forum set a record for attendance, with 550 people on hand to listen to, advocate for and support those speaking on behalf of various groups. The City Council uses the annual event to help determine city needs and prioritize spending.

All of the input received will be summarized and presented to the council in advance of its goal-setting workshop scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Jan. 28 in the city/county library building, as the city drafts a two-year 2017-19 budget.

“We can do anything,” City Manager Katie Lichtig said. “But we can’t do everything.”

Mayor Heidi Harmon said she was grateful for the large turnout, which she said helped renew her faith in the democratic process at the local level.

“Look at how many people are showing up to make this city an even better place,” Harmon said. “Even if a project doesn’t get funded in this budget cycle, I think it’s really important that so many people came out to plant the seeds of creating city goals and speak about what they’re passionate about.”

In addition to pushing for policies and funding to address the housing crunch, support mental health and homeless services, increase park and bike facilities, and improve street lights around Cal Poly, residents called for spending to dredge Laguna Lake, take action on climate change, implement a Mission Plaza Master Plan and establish a downtown cultural district that includes housing for artists.

“We’re losing talent to our neighboring regions because of our inability to house our local workforce,” said Kaila Anderson, marketing/communications director at the Economic Vitality Corporation. “And now with the closure of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, we are set to lose over 1,500 head-of-household jobs. So we need to make housing a priority now more than ever. We need policy solutions that will make housing affordable to our local workforce.”

With about 30,000 trips per day by commuters into San Luis Obispo, chamber of commerce president/CEO Ermina Karim called for more workforce housing that would benefit the environment by reducing vehicle emissions.

Others pushed for Cal Poly to house more students on campus to free up housing for the local workforce.

Cal Poly student body president Jana Colombini said more lighting is needed around the campus, as darkness poses a a safety concern for students walking home at night.

The council also heard from environmental activists, with some calling for a “green team coordinator” to lead a climate action initiative.

Resident Donette Dunaway asked the council to expand access to the city’s open space areas.

“One of the best things I believe about our community is that we’re in a natural setting and we do have access to this open space, to trails and so on,” Dunaway said. “I think we can improve this just a bit with no cost to the city. I would like to request that we have access extended to include limited evening hours, especially during the winter months. … Currently, users, hikers and bikers have to be off the trails one hour after sunset. I would like to suggest that open space be open until 9:30 p.m.”

Harmon reminded the public that they have until 11:59 p.m. Jan. 18 to lobby for community projects and needs for funding consideration at www.peakdemocracy.com/portals/189/Issue_4145.

The city has received more than 1,500 written and online responses to the city survey, more than three times the previous community forum, Lichtig said.