September 9, 2019

Oregon Mayor’s nonprofit experience shapes her vision for the future

As mayor of Eugene, Lucy Vinis had made increasing affordable housing and improving the environment her top priorities.

After a long career in nonprofits, Mayor Lucy Vinis assumed office in 2017. Photo via the Mayor's office.

Eugene, Oregon, is a college town, home to University of Oregon Duck fans and eccentric hippies alike.

It’s also home to Mayor Lucy Vinis, who took office in 2017 and has lived in the city for nearly 30 years. She’s focused on taking the city forward into the 21st century with a thriving tech industry and ensuring that housing stays affordable as that happens. The mayor is particularly concerned about the issue of climate change.

We spoke with Vinis about the unique way she connects with her constituents and how she works with a variety of nonprofits to help Eugene thrive. Here’s our brief Q&A with the mayor, edited for length and clarity. Follow the mayor on Twitter @LucyVinis.

Name three words to describe your town?

Energized, beautiful, and unique.

What is the job that best prepared you for being mayor?

The job I had immediately prior to running for Mayor was as development director for a local nonprofit called Shelter Care. It provides housing and services for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Given the landscape we’re living in and the fact that I had that experience and understood some of the challenges and some of the options really prepared me to address that issue in office.

I’ve worked in nonprofits all my life, and I joke about the fact that I spent my working life calling people who didn’t exactly want to hear from me. It’s sort of excellent preparation for being a mayor. You’re trying to communicate and sometimes people want to hear it and sometimes they don’t want to hear it.

What surprised you the most about the job once you took office?

What surprised me most was how much fun it is. I think that’s not apparent when you’re just reading the news, because the news will cover the gnarly issues where we’re stuck or struggling, but so much of being the mayor is fun and interesting.

You get to meet all kinds of people in the community and you get to exposed to all kinds of work, activities, and opportunities.

What’s your next big goal as mayor?

We’re looking at three big ongoing challenges: We have a critical shortage of housing that people can afford in our community. We have a critical challenge around homelessness and we are joining the rest of the world in feeling the crisis that is climate change.

I came into office worried about those issues. I think that in our region in particular we have an issue of emergency preparedness. We live in the cascadia subduction zone, so we’re at risk of a serious earthquake. There’s the challenge of being prepared for that as a city, but also ensuring that the public is prepared for it.

Is there another mayor who inspires you?

I certainly watch our bigger city to the north, Portland, in terms of how Mayor [Ted] Wheeler is handling issues. We’re in the I-5 corridor so we are sharing a lot of those issues in common, but they are bigger. That would also be true of Seattle. Mayor [Jenny] Durkan is facing a lot of those same things.

Going down the I-5 corridor, looking at what Eric Garcetti is facing in Los Angeles, looking at what London Breed is dealing with in San Francisco. We’re sharing those issues up and down the I-5 corridor, so I look to those larger to cities to see what strategies they’re using.

What’s your city’s most underutilized resource?

I think our people are our most underutilized resource. I think we have a lot of people in this community who are not really tapped into the political process, so they’re not really tapped into the policy making process. I think this is true of a lot of communities—you hear from the same sector of the community.

We’re increasingly diversifying and I think that we don’t hear enough from our communities of color and so I think that’s untapped. I think that’s a focus going forward as we talk about climate change, housing issues, and job creation, because those are the communities that are disproportionately impacted by those issues. I think we don’t hear enough from them about their experiences, insights, and suggestions about how we could make constructive progress.

You mentioned you come from a nonprofit background. Can you tell me about a few of your favorite nonprofits that are helping to solve problems for your residents?

In terms of addressing homelessness, we have some pretty astonishing nonprofits and grassroots efforts that started here that look at alternatives and created transitional and low-cost housing options to help people move more quickly into more stable housing. Some of our nonprofits—Square One Villages, St. Vincent de Paul, and Community Supported Shelters—they’re models for the rest of the country.

We have a pretty astonishing nonprofit that formed in the last couple of years that I gave an award to in January, Better Housing Together. It brought a broad array of stakeholders together to talk about housing and housing affordability and how we create more opportunities to build more housing that people can afford.

Bring Recycling has been in the vanguard of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” thinking. They have a certification program that’s helped workplaces and businesses identify where they could reduce their waste and their costs. They’ve been an important partner for the city of Eugene.

What’s the role of businesses and entrepreneurs in helping to move Eugene forward?

We’ve worked to identify sectors of our business community that should receive attention, with the idea that we wish to grow our own. We don’t want to only be importing big businesses here, we really want to grow our own businesses. We’re a university town, so we focused on technology and we have over 400 technology-businesses in Lane County, many of them based here in Eugene. One of those is our own little car manufacturer, it’s called Arcimoto. It’s now gone public. They make little electric two-seaters, technically a motorcycle, for getting around town, all built here in Eugene. It’s pretty extraordinary!

We also have a robust food and beverage industry, and it’s so robust that even during the recession those industries continued to grow here. We have an herbal products company called Mountain Rose Herbs, Wildtime Foods which makes Grizzlies Granola, and Nancy’s yogurt we’ve had for a long time.

What’s your favorite place in town to hang out when you’re not performing your official duties?

I have quite a few of those. There is a downtown eatery that I particularly like, the Davis Restaurant. It’s been there a long time, and a coffee shop The Barn Light. I love to be able to walk along the river and we have bike path that was established by one of our former mayors, she was a champion for this bike path.

For nearly 40 years, Eugene has been the “track and field capital of the world.” Are you a runner yourself? If not, what’s your favorite outdoor activity in Eugene?

I am not a runner, I am a walker, but I’m not competitive about it. I started a new initiative this year called “Walks with the Mayor.” I’m inviting neighborhoods and organizations to reach out to me and take a walk with me. It’s both to get exercise but also to be on the ground seeing what people are experiencing in a neighborhood and finding out what they need to talk about with the mayor.

With Eugene receiving over 50 inches of annual rainfall, Are you an umbrella or rain jacket kind of person?

I am much more of a rain jacket person, I’d have to say. Actually, I have a really big “Carmen Sandiego” rain hat, so I really just like to wear my broad-brimmed hat.

What was your favorite subject in school?

All through school I studied French, and my life ambition when I was a little girl was I wanted to be a piano teacher in Paris. I wasn’t actually that good at piano, so the French sort of went by the wayside.

What was the last great book you read?

I have an aging mother, she’s 96 and in the final chapter of her life, and I just read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and I will recommend it to everybody. I think it’s incredibly insightful and helpful as we think about how to care for our senior citizens as they age, and also how we address the medical needs of terminal illnesses. It sounds depressing, but it’s actually a very good book. It’s a page turner.

In 2013, Eugene won the title of best city in the U.S for hippies. Is that true?

We still have a vestige of that, there’s no doubt about it. We have the Saturday Market and it is a craft fair, with food and music that happens right in our downtown square. It’s decades old and you can still buy tie dye there.

Eugene has a “Free Speech Plaza.” Has anything happened there that influenced your decisions as Mayor?

We do still have the Free Speech Plaza, it’s a downtown fixture for us. It is used very regularly. Sometimes it’s challenging. Recently, our city council passed a resolution condemning white nationalism, and after that passed there was an extemporaneous demonstration around that issue.

I will just say when we have our city council meetings, we always begin with a public forum and anybody can speak on any topic for three minutes. I say to everyone, “strap on your seatbelts and hang on for the ride,” because we’re about to hear from 50 people.

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the deputy editor of The Renewal Project.