Paying for Parks

Centerpiece for the Gresham Outlook investigating a lack of funding for parks and what the city can do to improve green spaces, recreation for youths

Children play at Nadaka Nature Park in Gresham, which had to slash programs and maintenance due to a lack of funds from the city.

Growing up in North Portland, Anthony Bradley and Terrell Brandon had dreams of playing in the National Basketball Association. 

Almost every afternoon the two friends would head over to Unthank Park, in North Portland, where they would spend hours and hours shooting hoops. Their favorite game was to yell out a countdown, “3-2-1,” and then heave up a shot pretending it was a game-winner in the NBA Finals. 

While Bradley and Brandon were visiting that park daily, Portland Parks and Recreation brought in official programming. They created youth basketball teams and leagues that allowed for more structure during their play. Mentors and coaches helped guide the kids, and official games allowed the pair to actually try their hand at last-second shots. 

“Those programs helped us achieve our dreams,” Bradley said.

Brandon would go on to be a first round draft pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers and have an 11-year career in the NBA, while Bradley became the executive director of Gresham’s Play Grow Learn, a youth and family services program that helps other young people achieve their goals. 

A few years after Bradley and Brandon stopped going to Unthank Park, the city of Portland ceased that crucial programming. 

“Shortly after it left, the park was overrun by gangs and the devastation of drugs, murder, and other illegal activities,” Bradley said. “The benefits of a parks program can work for the entire community and have far-reaching potential.” 

For Bradley, having a stable park in his neighborhood where he could play in a safe space allowed him to avoid pitfalls that tripped some of his peers. It was more than just a block dedicated to greenery and amenities, but the programming that made Unthank Park a special place. 

And now Bradley is just one of many voices calling for more robust funding for Gresham’s many parks. That topic was front and center at a recent Gresham Council Listening Session, where three elected officials and many staff members heard concerns and ideas from community members. 

“Our parks are woefully underfunded — we are not naive about that,” said Councilor Karylinn Echols, who helmed the Tuesday evening, Jan. 28, listening session. 

Extensive expenses

Parks funding has to address several aspects within the city. 

The money would support Gresham looking to plan and acquire land for future natural areas; develop parks on land that was banked years ago; upgrade amenities and infrastructure at existing parks; continue maintenance; and form programming and recreation opportunities, like the ones that uplifted Bradley in North Portland. 

It could also increase the number of full-time staff members dedicated to maintenance. Currently there are only eight people assigned to dealing with all of the natural areas in Gresham, which is nowhere near enough. 

“We don’t have the manpower to bring these parks to what we want them to be,” said Jim Card, the driving force behind Tsuru Island, Gresham’s Japanese Garden. 

Gresham has 56 parks accounting for more than 300 acres of space. There is also an extensive trail network and many natural and green spaces. City leadership has stressed many times the importance of supporting the young families and children flocking to the community — a passion that began in Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis’ office and permeated throughout City Hall.

Parks are an important part of that equation. They offer free attractions and gathering places for community members who aren’t able to afford vacations or other pricey recreational options. 

“If there is a non-partisan issue, it’s parks,” said Councilor Jerry Hinton. 

And while the city has been creative in leveraging grants and partnerships to provide opportunities like Friday and Saturday Night Basketball, Sunday Futsal, Summer Kids in the Park, and more, there is only so much that can be done on a shoestring budget. 

“The city doesn’t have an extensive recreation program,” said Steve Fancher, Gresham’s public works director. 

Germaine Flentroy, program coordinator for the nonprofit organization Play Grow Learn, spoke passionately about the need for culturally specific amenities, especially for the African American community. 

“We play basketball — we need more access to courts,” he said. “We want these parks to be safe for our kids.” 

Flentroy said that without giving children a safe place to go, it leads to dangerous situations and trouble. 

Another concern brought up during the meeting was new development exploding across the city, creating clusters of people without easy access to a park. In the Civic Neighborhood, more than 750 apartment units are being erected. Eventually, those families will need a place to play. 

In the short term, there are several new green spaces that will be coming to the community. 

Gabbert Butte Nature Park is being funded by Metro Regional Government and should be completed by 2021; $2 million in state lottery funding will be used to commence the second phase of Gradin Sports Park; and Gresham is set to receive a $4 million share from a Metro Parks and Nature Bond that was approved by voters in 2019.

Adam Kohl, founder and executive director with the nonprofit Outgrowing Hunger, a group that develops community garden plots, stressed the importance of Gresham matching one-time windfalls with land banking while reserving ongoing revenue for maintenance. 

“You have to match the length of the liability with the length of the income,” Kohl said. 

Potential solutions

Twenty years ago, two ballot measures passed in Gresham that severally hamstringed the city’s ability to fund parks. The vote set a permanent property tax that was the second lowest in the state. 

“We are in a very difficult situation with our General Fund,” Echols said. 

The fallout was immediate. In 1990, Gresham’s property taxes paid for 100% of police and fire services. Now, those taxes are only able to foot 40% of those expenses. As a result the city had to get creative in filling in the gaps. With the priority being safety, police and fire get the lion’s share, leaving parks to wither. 

During the listening session, Gresham staff highlighted several long-term solutions that could bolster the city’s struggling parks funding. 

“There are pros and cons to all of these,” Fancher said. 

The city could create a new “Park Utility” fee collected as an addition to the water bill. That would allow for dedicating funds straight to parks, though the city would have to decide whether to make it a regressive or progressive tax. 

Gresham could increase the existing Police-Fire-Parks fee that was enacted in 2012. That fee currently collects $15 every two months per property, and is probably in need of an increase to match inflation. The problem with using that fee to fund natural spaces is parks receives 5% of the money, so it would only scratch the surface of what the community wants to see.

The city could go for an Operations Levy/Bond Measure, which would also collect money from property taxes and would require voter approval. But voters have shown a lack of appetite for that type of solution, shooting down a Community Center bond in 2016 with a 56% no vote. 

Finally, Gresham could form a parks district, which was the most popular choice for the meeting’s attendees. A decision that would also require voter approval, a parks district collects money from resident’s property taxes. It can be its own entity or be run by the city, and has the possibility of looping in other municipalities like Fairview, Troutdale and Wood Village and unincorporated communities like Corbett and Damascus to expand its scope. 

“These are all high-level, big picture funding options,” Fancher said. 

Parks District

Lee Dayfield is someone who has been fighting for a parks district for more than a decade. 

“I think if people knew what a parks district could do for the city of Gresham, they would bend over backward for it,” she said. 

A shining example lies just a short jaunt across the region. The Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District west of downtown Portland is a feat of parks funding. Approved by voters in 1955, it is now the largest special parks district in Oregon, spanning 50 square miles and serving 250,000 residents across Beaverton and Washington County. 

That district provides year-round recreational opportunities for all ages, maintains 95 park sites with amenities, 70 miles of trails, eight swim centers, six recreation centers and 1,500 acres of natural areas. 

“It’s overwhelming,” said Dayfield, who is a green space champion, having been the driving force behind the creation of Nadaka Nature Park. 

A parks district has the power to construct, reconstruct, alter, enlarge, operate and maintain lakes, parks, recreation grounds and buildings; acquire necessary lands; and to call elections after being formed.

Several groups have already formally announced support for a feasibility study based on creating a local parks and recreation district, including the Gresham Neighborhood Association Coalition. 

In 2010, a push for a parks district would have enacted a $0.25 property tax levy to generate roughly $2.1 million a year. If the smaller cities had been included, the cost would have been a range of $31 to $53 annually for the average home in East Multnomah County. According to studies, the larger a parks district the more of a chance it has to thrive. 

Advocates are excited about the possibility of a robust parks district. 

A representative from the Gresham Barlow Youth Baseball/Softball League spoke in favor of a district because it would help bolster sports in the community. More regional and statewide tournaments would mean more visitors to Gresham, including tourism dollars for food, lodging and shopping. 

Mt. Hood Community College officials see a parks district as a potential funding source for their outdoor pool, which is in need of an inflatable cover. For others, it answered their calls for programming and services, amenities like benches for seniors, community gardens, dog parks, a community center and more. 

Nothing is set in stone. The Gresham City Council will discuss parks funding throughout 2020, including how to spend its portion of the Metro bond. And whether they settle on a parks district or one of the other funding methods, many community members agree support is needed for Gresham’s parks. 

“We all care about parks,” Dayfield said. “Something has to be done.”

Being Black in America

Centerpiece for the Gresham Outlook, addressing local takes on the Black Lives Matter marches that took place in 2020.

PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEZIUR — Shemar Lennox leads a march through downtown Gresham in support of Black Lives Matter after the killing of George Floyd

8 minutes and 46 seconds. 

8 minutes and 46 seconds of seeing a black man struggling on the ground, knee crushing against the back of his neck. 

8 minutes and 46 seconds of hearing people cry out to stop, none more urgently that a man calling for his mother who had died two years before. 

8 minutes and 46 seconds of police officers standing by and doing nothing. 

Travis Stovall watched all 8 minutes and 46 seconds of the video out of Minneapolis, showing the killing of George Floyd at the hands of those tasked to protect him. 

“I’ve seen many things in my lifetime, but the situation with George Floyd has impacted me differently,” Stovall said. “We as black men are feeling that could have been anyone of us. In that moment the officer was judge, jury and executioner.”

Stovall is 47 years old — born 9 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He grew up in Kansas City, 15 minutes away from a town with a law on the books until the 1980s that black people couldn’t purchase a home. He moved to East Multnomah County two decades ago, and then to Gresham in 2006. The discrimination followed. 

Stovall is co-founder and CEO of eRep, a tech company that assists businesses in talent acquisition and management services. He led the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce as president of the board of directors; is a board member on several organizations, including TriMet; and is the former director of the East Metro Economic Alliance. 

And yet the entrepreneur still gets treated differently because of the color of his skin. 

“The stories are rancid,” he said. “Every morning I wake up as a black man in America — knowing I have to earn the right to be considered a person who can contribute.” 

African American community members are starting to push for real changes. They want to stop systemic racism in the workplace, create more opportunities for black youths, and enact reforms in law enforcement that will prevent people from being killed for allegedly trying to spend a counterfeit $20 bill, selling cigarettes on the street corner, or sleeping in their bed. 

Gresham City leadership has vocally stood in solidarity with protestors and has committed to find ways to improve. A review of Gresham Police Department policies has begun, specifically focused on use-of-force, and the “first of many” conversations was had Wednesday, June 10, between council and black leaders. 

“It is going to be tough work, but we have a moral imperative,” said Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis. “I am fully aware of where we are and that actions are required. Not everyone is going to be supportive — and I don’t care.” 

Facing discrimination

Stovall was confronted after moving into a new neighborhood in Gresham. 

He was standing near the entrance to the neighborhood with two of his friends, all three were black. As they spoke, and laughed, a man walked up and asked, “What are you doing here?” 

“I was embarrassed, I didn’t know what he was talking about at first,” Stovall said. “After a moment of staring at us, the man said, ‘Oh, you are working here.'” 

The white resident assumed the three must have been service workers, not believing they would be able to own a home in his neighborhood.

“That is not the exception to the rule,” Stovall said. 

Stovall’s story is common among members of the black community, who say they are judged based on the color of their skin.

Pastor Keith Jenkins has lived in Gresham for 6 months, leading East Hill Church in downtown Gresham. It is an exciting time to helm the faith organization, as more diverse members are coming together with a shared faith. But his first experience in East Multnomah County was unpleasant, mirroring other incidents peppered throughout his life as a 54-year-old African American man. 

He and his wife were relocating to Gresham from Eugene, and had set up a tour of a home they were considering for rent. Everything was fine over the phone. The couple pulled up to the house, which had two cars in the driveway, and knocked on the door. They heard people moving around inside, but despite the scheduled tour no one would open the door. 

“We assume they saw who we were, what ethnic group we belonged to, and they didn’t want us renting,” Jenkins said. “What we are lacking is simple human decency.”

Jenkins was a member of the panel discussion convened by Gresham city leadership to learn about what the African American community is facing. The other speakers were Katrise Perera, superintendent of the Gresham-Barlow School District; Paul Coakley, superintendent of the Centennial School District; Rev. E.D. Mondainé, NAACP chapter president; Pastor J.W. Matt Hennessee, Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church of Portland; Shemar Lennox, Gresham Standup Movement; and Germaine Flentroy, Play Grow Learn. 

“I have been fighting this battle of suffocation and racism,” Hennessee said. “The white power structure is not willing to give up that easily — you are embarking on something with plenty of people who don’t want to see this succeed.” 

Hennessee said business leaders need to make space for people who don’t look like them, and allow employees of color to feel safe to speak up about how they feel without fear of losing their job. 

“This isn’t about whether you are a racist or not,” he said. “Are you willing to work hard to ensure there is equity and justice all over the place?”

One question Perera hears most often is whether she got her job because she is a black woman. 

She was 6 years old when her father, a police officer, began speaking with her about what she would face growing up in this country. Coakley is having those own conversations with his 10-year-old son — something shared by every other member of the panel.

“Until Black Lives Matter, you can’t say All Lives Matter,” Perera said. “In the black household there is no such thing as an age of innocence.” 

Both superintendents said they are worried about all the children in their districts. Finances were dire before COVID-19 swept the globe, and now staff layoffs and program cuts are likely coming at a time when reinvesting in K-12 is more crucial than ever. 

As a pastor, Hennessee often gets calls from those in need of guidance at all hours of the day. But when he gets a call for help at 2 a.m., he is nervous to drive. He said if he is in a 35 mph zone, he will put on cruise control, and at stop signs he remains hyper aware. 

“We are constantly conscious of who we are, because we are in the United States of America,” he said. 

For Flentroy, it’s all about making changes to uplift the next generation and stopping the decades of violence. 

“We need to make sure no black person dies out here,” Flentroy said. “We know there are good cops and bad cops right here in the city of Gresham — what are we going to do about this?” 

Marching for change

The four peaceful Black Lives Matter marches that have taken place in downtown Gresham all were coordinated by a pair of youths at the helm of the Gresham Standup Movement. 

Shemar Lenox, 21, and Jaylen Welch, 18, both grew up in this city. They graduated from Gresham High School and watched the video of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. As protests and demonstrations began across the country, they decided to bring it into their own backyard. 

“It’s been eye opening to see the Gresham community stand with us in solidarity,” Lenox said. 

Their grassroots organization has changes they want made, including: 

— All officers keep their body cameras on during contact with the public — failing to do so leads to a criminal charge. 

— Regular mental health checks for officers. 

— Independent reviews on use of deadly force in the last decade. 

— Mandatory training in de-escalation techniques. 

— Training on racial profiling.

— Annual public statistics on arrests involving an injury or death. 

— Criminal charges for officers who witness something wrong and don’t attempt to stop or report it. 

“If I stood by and watched Jaylen kneel on someone’s neck to kill them, I would be charged, too,” Lenox said. “If cops don’t hold each other accountable it should result in criminal charges.” 

The pair say they plan on continuing the marches until reforms are made. 

“We have been sitting here for years but nothing has changed,” Lenox said. “I am optimistic about Gresham, but we could be doing this until the day we die.” 

Hope is waning for Stovall. 

In 2017 he made a Facebook post in support of marches and protests that were happening then surrounding the death of a black person. Last week someone stumbled on that post and liked it, thinking it was in reference to what is happening three years later. 

“I’m skeptical things will change — in three years someone may see a post I make today and like it,” Stovall said. “We are struggling, tired, exhausted.”

Zombie houses and the mysterious Mr. Yee

Centerpiece for the Portland Tribune, the final installment of a four-part series that I worked on with a veteran reporter.


Milwaukie city staff needed four days and 20 truckloads to clear the junk from a property where Norman Yee was a resident, including 10 riding lawn mowers and 81 pieces of gas-powered lawn equipment.

Paint is flaking on the house at 8517 N. Portsmouth Ave. The lawn is thick with shoulder-high weeds. The vacant house stands in stark contrast to other well-kept homes along the street.

One neighbor has lived on this block for 50 years and calls himself a victim of the property, which has sat vacant for the past 20 years. He has seen opossums, raccoons and rats living in the house. Groups of squatters have moved in and out. Once he saw a shirtless, barefooted man leap from a second-story window after accidentally starting a fire. He is fairly certain the man was smoking crack upstairs.

In all of those years, the neighbor has never seen the man who owns the vacant property — the one responsible for lowering the value of his home and causing a safety hazard in the neighborhood.

The property has more than $64,000 in outstanding liens, and the city has conducted 15 enforcement actions, according to city officials.

“We don’t understand why the city hasn’t done anything,” says the neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Elusive landlord

Norman Yee owns the Portsmouth neighborhood house and 11 other properties with outstanding liens and maintenance issues in Portland, according to city officials. As of March 1, he owed a total of $529,025 in liens. Police and city inspectors have been called to his properties 127 times in response to neighbors’ complaints.

Portland is in the throes of an affordable housing crisis closely linked to a housing shortage. Yet the city has a glut of abandoned homes — at least 430 on the east side alone.

Though many of those “zombie” homes have unpaid liens due to multiple code violations, the city of Portland hasn’t foreclosed on a home since 1965. The foreclosure office is aware of people like Yee, who take advantage of the system with multiple zombie homes, but has never brought one to the City Council to consider for foreclosure.

Mayor Charlie Hales and City Commissioner Dan Saltzman are pressing for changes in how the bureaucracy addresses abandoned homes and landlords like Yee.

“He is the poster child for moving forward with some kind of foreclosures,” says Matt Grumm, senior policy manager with the Bureau of Developmental Services (BDS), which is overseen by Saltzman.

As much as he is a plague to his neighbors, Yee is a mystery to city officials. He ignores them and he ignores city fines, officials say. One thing they know for certain is that Yee has enough assets to afford paying off liens. His 12 Portland properties are worth more than $2 million, based on real market value set by the county assessor.

Court documents say Yee is 60 years old, 5-foot-7, 160 pounds, has black hair and wears glasses. No one from BDS has ever met him, and they’ve tried.

When city officials want to communicate with Yee, they send notices to six addresses. They don’t know which of his homes he uses. The last time the city had any interaction with him was for a hearing on the Portsmouth property four years ago, officials say. He signed an agreement promising to pay the liens and fix the property. He never did.

“We have someone clearly demonstrating through actions year after year they are unwilling to comply with the city’s minimum standards,” says Michael Liefeld, enforcement program manager with BDS.

City officials say this is unacceptable. They claim they have limited resources to take care of the entire city, so expending so much on one individual keeps them from dealing with the city’s 430 zombie homes. Yet Yee skips hearings, fails to respond to communications and does the bare minimum to string along enforcement officials. And the city does not foreclose.

Unconventional landlord

James Esterkin, a lawyer who represented a company that foreclosed on a property Yee bought from them five years ago, has never seen a case like this.

“There are people whose business practices are conventional and people whose business practices are not,” Esterkin says. “Norman fits into the latter. Letting properties go into foreclosure is a bad business practice.”

Yee’s actions have no obvious profit-making motive, Esterkin says. Most investors, he says, will buy cheap properties, make some renovations and improvements, and then flip them for a profit. But Yee hasn’t done that.

Ultimately, Yee paid Esterkin’s client everything he owed and the attorney fees as well, a total of $52,892. But it was a longer journey than it needed to be, and Esterkin struggled to find Yee to serve him court papers.

“Most of the cases I have where somebody has gone into default on a loan, you look at what happened,” Esterkin says. “Sometimes they made rational decisions that didn’t work out, and sometimes it was bad luck.”

“With this,” he says, “I never could figure out what was going on.”

Clearing the junk

The city of Portland has become a maintenance service for Yee’s 12 properties — removing garbage, cutting grass, trimming hedges and making sure the sidewalks are clear, Liefeld says. But even at that, they’re not sure he’s the worst of the zombie home owners.

“If he is not the worst,” Liefeld says, “he is in the top five.”

Yee’s reputation precedes him, especially with squatters, according to Liefeld, who is certain homeless people have been targeting Yee’s homes as places to crash. In one situation, a squatter moved into a Yee home after seeing a Craigslist ad placed by someone — not Yee — trying to find a renter for a house they didn’t own.

“That is how deep this can go,” Liefeld says. “Word can get out, and now the properties are attractive because they know the owner is absentee.”

Recently Yee has been more responsive to the Portland Hearings Office, but that may be because BDS is stepping up enforcement. Fines on Yee’s houses might soon reach $1,000 a day.

Milwaukie city officials also have clashed with Yee. At 2840 S.E. Boyd St., a property where he was the resident, an abatement process was needed to deal with what the City Council declared was a nuisance.

Quite a big nuisance. It took four days and 20 truckloads to clear the property of the junk that was piled up in the front and back yard, according to a city report. The city removed 51,250 pounds of material from the property, including 24,000 pounds of wood, 10 riding lawnmowers and 81 other pieces of lawn-care equipment.

The final lien assessed for the work was $17,732. It has yet to be paid.

Tim Salyers, Milwaukie’s code compliance coordinator, dealt directly with Yee during the abatement enforcement. In the report he filed with the city, he describes a few of his interactions with the man.

When Salyers first arrived with a warrant, Yee had a large white pickup truck blocking access to the property. While parked legally, it was stalling the city’s workers.

“I asked Mr. Yee nicely to move the vehicle so the workers could get started,” Salyers wrote.

Yee refused, and when informed the pickup would be towed, he said, “to go right ahead.” Eventually, after a sergeant with the Milwaukie Police Department arrived, the truck was moved.

Throughout the process, according to Salyers, Yee would sit on the front porch and back patio, watching the workers remove the material and taking notes.

Numerous attempts were made to speak with Yee for this story. Visits were made to his likely place of residence in Milwaukie, a letter was sent to a Post Office box listed in his name and a call was made to his lawyer. None received a response.

Yee has gone out of his way to avoid interacting with others. One of his properties, at 1818 N. Killingsworth St., is occupied. The occupant spoke on the phone with city officials, and when asked for information about Yee, explained he was explicitly forbidden to say anything.

Liefeld says it’s time to finally deal with the problem.

“Owning property is not necessarily a right,” Liefeld says. “Mr. Yee needs to be foreclosed.”