Requiem for a once thriving McLoughlin Boulevard
Chuck Flood's book "Images of America: Oregon's Highway 99" shows the role, "Super Highway 99E" (now Southest McLoughlin Boulevard) played in the growth of the area south of Portland to the Clackamas River.
If you were east of the Willamette River and wanted to travel south to Salem, Eugene and California, 99E was your only option. There were several restaurants, motels, mobile-home parks and service stations on the highway in what is known as Oak Grove and Jennings Lodge. One business still stands pretty much in its original form. Roakes, at Jennings and McLoughlin, opened in 1937 as Jiffy Way, and was where I was first introduced to "Coney Islands" a decade later. Since that time I have seen both growth and decline on this stretch of 99E. However, it has been more in decline over the last couple of decades. Once thriving businesses have become used car lots.
It has finally become just the "corridor" that it has been called for decades. The proverbial nail in the coffin for McLoughlin Boulevard was the "sudden" closure of the aquarium at the site of what was once Stuart Anderson's Cattle Co. Since then two more service stations have closed and will become used car lots. Well, to be honest, other businesses have come to McLoughlin Blvd too. Pawn shops and storage facilities, including one I mentioned before which will be a "mausoleum of sorts" just across the street from Fred Meyer on Oak Grove Boulevard.
The opening of Interstate 5 in the late '60s may have had some effect on 99E business, but did affect traffic on 99W. I'm not even convinced opening I-205 had much influence either. Lack of vision had more to do with the decline of McLoughlin than anything else.
I recently attended a meeting where the Clackamas County Planning Commission explained what is called the "McLoughlin Overlay," which is basically a zone map. With some foresight it could have prevented the "mausoleum" from coming into the area. But coming from a half century's experience in marketing, "planning" has a whole different meaning.
In short, I believe the community as a whole is not happy about all the car lots, but very few are clear about alternatives. I'm not sure current leadership is either, and I suspect the county commissioners don't really care as long as those businesses pay taxes.
Since the mid '80s I've taught a workshop called: "Living by Choice, Chance or Crises." I facilitated it in parts of the Midwest, and up and down the Pacific Coast from San Diego to the Puget Sound area. It is based on the concept that there are three types of people in this world: Those who make things happen. Those who watched what happened. And, those who wonder what happened! Add in three factors explored; the past, the future, and most importantly, the concept of living in the present. The past includes clarifying those things that we don't want. The present deals with everyday issues and challenges. The future demands clarifying our wants and needs; future is always the hardest area for workshop participants to deal with because it also demands creation of a vision.
It also becomes systemic in terms of our community. We're pretty sure we don't want all these car lots, but are not clear about how they should, or could be replaced. We do know there are many residents who aren't happy with present conditions. What is being done to build this community's future? The problem is not new and has basically escalated, perhaps, somewhat at a snail's pace, since the late '50s.
I've been to many so-called planning meetings but have not heard the word "Vision" in any of them until recently. That had to do with the Concord School Project. The leaders wanted input from the community to create a "vision" for the best use of the facility to benefit the community. Over the last five decades I've learned over and over again that every project must have a goal, a vision for the final outcome, and an end result.
When The Bomber opened on July 27, 1947, it put this community on the map. Over the next few decades The Bomber would be visited by people from every state in the union, Canada, and Mexico, as well as many foreign countries. The owner, Art Lacey, was a bit rough around the edges, but a visionary and businessman. He also knew how to promote having a B-17 bomber at a restaurant until it was moved to Salem for restoration in 2014.
In the early 1950s a Los Angeles businessman looked at a bare piece of land near Anaheim, miles from LA and San Diego, and saw its potential. He moved on that vision and opened Disneyland. I was there in 1956 shortly after it opened and was in awe of what had been accomplished. Look what the vision of that man has become since then.
Another vision just as far-fetched as Walt Disney's was a plan to build a "Las Vegas" style community in southern Missouri. It would be 45 miles from the nearest interstate highway. The big difference was "this was to be family oriented" without gambling and alcohol. There would be numerous venues and attractions including Las Vegas style shows, comedy clubs and museums. Unlike Las Vegas and other places, entertainers would come out and visit, and pose for pictures with the audiences during the intermission and after the show. Although Branson was not immune to economic slumps, the community managed to weather them. Further, in addition to vehicles, it pretty much had to rely on bus service from St. Joseph. More recently a new airport was built nearby with a longer runway, making Branson more accessible.
Unique to Branson is the fact that all of the venues are not on one street or boulevard, but scattered around the community. If you were to overlay a map of Branson over this part of North Clackamas County they are very similar. While they have lakes, we have rivers. I've presented my vision to numerous community leaders by way of a brief PowerPoint presentation on a CD. Few have bothered to even look at it. It includes bringing destination businesses not only to McLoughlin, but other parts of North Clackamas County, including Milwaukie and Gladstone. An example is the Safeway building. Most of the locals are pretty sure what they don't want there. Some have suggested Trader Joes; others, New Seasons. Personally I would like to see a BiMart in that building. Could it also become a comedy club, dance hall, perhaps a live theater? The building has potential for many uses. What benefit would an investor have by buying or leasing that property and turning it into a "destination" business? Could it be the inaugural project that will bring other investors and businesses here?
Is it time to take the bull by the horns and develop a short and long-term vision? So where is the leadership? Where is the research? Where is the planning? Who is going to assemble a committee to research the best businesses to help grow and sustain this community? Who is going to assemble a marketing consortium to go out and sell the benefits of building businesses here? Can we broaden the scope of planning to come up with a vision for the potential of what can be, rather than a redo of the currently existing business climate? It won't happen overnight, but will take time. That's why developing immediate goals are important, along with a five-year plan, a 10-year plan and a 25-year plan. It won't be an easy sell but the long-term rewards will be worth the effort. We may not be around in 25 years, but our children and grandchildren will be the beneficiaries of our hard work! It will be their legacy. And we'll no longer just be another bedroom community south of Portland.
There is another option. We could just have a memorial service for what was once a thriving boulevard!
G.F. "Gary" Blair is a longtime resident of Oak Grove.