City Government

VanGordon: Housing, economy among top priorities

Mayor Sean VanGordon, entering his second year in the role, said Springfield has a “reputation for hard work, innovation, and collaboration.”ERIN TIERNEY/CHRONICLE PHOTO

When one enters Springfield Mayor Sean VanGordon’s office at city hall, the first thing you notice is that it’s pleasantly utilitarian. There are no plaques or commendations or photos with other politicians. In fact, it looks more like a spare office than that of a top elected official’s workspace. And yet, the spartan accommodations seem to fit VanGordon’s work ethic well.

“I’m a do-the-work kind of guy,” he told me recently, a few days before he was set to release the annual State of the City speech. “I don’t think about the title or ceremony that comes with being the mayor. I’d rather just chug ahead and do the work that people want me to do.”

That plug-along attitude may explain how VanGordon, 41, can both serve as mayor and the full-time Director of Industrial Engineering at UnitedHealth Group. 

“I live a busy life, but I love it,” he said. He credits his wife, Elaine, whom he has known since high school, for her support and partnership. “I basically live with three separate calendars to keep me on track: one for city business, one for my job, and one for family.”

VanGordon’s history is tailor-made for Springfield. He moved to the area to attend the University of Oregon and paid for tuition by unloading vans at the UPS facility on Olympic Boulevard. After graduation, he and his wife bought their first home in the city and quickly saw that his can-do attitude was matched by the city’s plucky history. It was a discovery that made it easy to venture into the world of city government.

“Springfield has always had a reputation for hard work, innovation, and collaboration,” he told me. “As many have said, Springfield is the region’s best-kept secret. It pulls you in with its ideal size – somewhere between a town and a city – but it’s more than that. Springfield was doing innovative things with housing that other communities weren’t doing in the past decades simply because our collective attitude is that we get things done.”

The mayor said those feelings about the city and its citizenry led him to seek office for the first time more than 10 years ago. In 2011, he joined the Springfield City Council and represented the Gateway Area (Ward 1). 

VanGordon, the council, and the city staff’s track record of accomplishments for the past year (his first full year as mayor) were on display in the 2022 State of the City Address, which he delivered via video due to COVID-19 protocols.

In the address, VanGordon listed some of the city’s major economic accomplishments of 2021, including:

• Continuing progress toward redeveloping the Springfield Buick Motors that would build off the heritage of the site to add housing, restaurants, and coworking office space. 

• Entering a partnership with the Scherer family and Northwest Sustainable Properties to build a first-of-its-kind, mixed-use residential building in downtown Springfield. 

• Moving forward to revitalize Glenwood by selecting development partners in Edlen & Co. and deChase Miksis. 

• Increasing local business starts through the city’s partnership with the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.

He also told me that when all department heads submitted their collective accomplishments from the previous year, he and council had to cull almost 25 pages worth of items for the final version of the address to save time. 

“Despite all the challenges, despite COVID, we did so much at the city to keep moving forward,” he said.

“What I’ve appreciated most about Mayor VanGordon has been his steady leadership and his thoughtful, sensible approach to business and economic-related policy decisions,” said Vonnie Mikkelsen, President and CEO of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s been not only timely, but necessary during this economic uncertainty for businesses.”

In addition to the development successes, VanGordon is also proud of how the city stepped up to help the community and its own employees during the second year of the pandemic.

“I believe the city definitely helped the Springfield business community during COVID,” he said. “I think Springfield is at its best when we have a great relationship between city government and local business, and I think that relationship really came to the fore during 2020 and 2021. The city was instrumental in distributing protective gear; we amended regulations so restaurants and in-person businesses could serve customers; and we re-did some zoning to accommodate service to outside patrons. In short, we helped businesses literally survive during this generational challenge.”

Another aspect of the city’s response to COVID was managing its own employee needs during a transition to remote work. And for that, the city had an important advocate in VanGordon. “I guess you could say that I’ve been doing remote work before it was cool,” he joked. “Since 2013, I’ve been fully remote in my full-time position, and I offered my views about how such an arrangement can work well for both employee and employer. But at the end of the day, our response to our employees and developing a strategy for both in-person and remote work was quarterbacked by City Manager Nancy Newton, who did an amazing job.”

For her part, Newton told me how much she enjoys collaborating with the mayor. “Working with Mayor VanGordon is rewarding and fun, and I appreciate his ability to bring people together. He is genuine, intelligent, and has a natural interest in people and learning from others. I respect him both as our mayor and as an individual.”

As the city moves forward into 2022 and we all begin to experience the reduced impact of the pandemic (hopefully), VanGordon is focused on one of the biggest challenges ahead for the city and the region.

“Creating enough adequate housing continues to be one of our biggest challenges, and it won’t be solved overnight,” he said. “I’m a great optimist but also a realist, and the lack of affordable housing is a problem that is going to take years to solve. I’m excited that in Springfield we are doing a great many things to move us toward a better place.” 

One program he points out is the city’s work to accommodate more Accessory Dwelling Units. By amending the housing code, Springfield now allows homeowners to add studio units or “mother-in-law” units to current houses to take in tenants at a much denser population than before.

At the end of our conversation, I asked VanGordon his favorite part of the job. He laughed and threw up his hands and said: “Being mayor is a great job. Whether it’s a ribbon cutting or emailing constituents or talking to be people while I am BBQing. I enjoy it. I am having a great time.” 

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