“One of the reasons that I love local government,” says Mayor Shane Bemis of Gresham, Ore., “is that it doesn’t matter if you’re an ‘R[epublican]’ or a ‘D[emocrat]’, it matters on what’s best for this community.
That statement sums up Bemis’s governing style in Gresham, where his economically-focused initiatives have enabled the town of about 110,000 people to enjoy revitalized business corridors and a nearly energy-neutral wastewater treatment plant, as well the largest solar installation in the Pacific Northwest.
Bemis was born in Billings, Mont., and moved to Gresham with his family when he was 15 years old — just one day before starting high school. Introduced to politics by his mother (who was very involved in the Montana political scene), Bemis, as he put it, “caught the bug” while working at a family-owned department store, which happened to be a popular spot with local government officials, during his high school years.
In his late 20s, Bemis opened a Bellagio’s Pizzeria franchise in Gresham, which soon led to his belief that the town would benefit being governed by someone with more of a “business sense.” In 2002, he was elected to the city council, and in 2006, voted into the mayor’s office. When he assumed office in 2007, Bemis was just 34 years old — making him the youngest person to hold the position in Gresham’s history.
Although the city’s population has ballooned by more than 75,000 people since 1980, city government positions — including the office of mayor — remain unpaid. Bemis still works as a restaurateur in Gresham, now owning an independent Italian restaurant called Boccelli’s. He splits his time between managing his business, conducting his responsibilities as mayor and spending time with his wife and their three sons.
In response to the many shuttered storefronts in the city’s commercial areas, Bemis (along with the city council) created one of his signature initiatives: the “Garage to Storefront” program, which waived all start-up fees and charges for any business that opened in a space of 5,000 square feet or less and provided assistance from city advisors. Lasting for three years (after which time it was no longer needed), 144 new businesses opened under the program — occupying 200,000 square feet of retail space.
Bemis also quickly recognized the economic potential of going green. Shortly after taking office, he signed the Mayor’s Climate Protection Act and went to work looking for places where environmental responsibility could make economic sense. Gresham changed all of its streetlights to energy-efficient LEDs, repurposed its wastewater treatment plant to produce energy via the recycling of cooking oil and other environmental technologies. Bemis understands Gresham is a conservative city, saying that he never talks about climate in regards to green initiatives, preferring instead to focus on the economic benefits of environmentally-friendly measures. This practical approach has reaped large benefits, something Bemis attributes to the non-partisan nature of local governance.
Bemis hasn’t ruled out the idea of someday seeking higher office, but for the time being he doesn’t seem to be too interested. “Right now, there’s not a lot of glory in being an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ and being in gridlock,” says Bemis, “either at the state level or the federal level. Here we can get things done and it’s a whole heck of a lot of fun.”