Dozens turn out in downtown Woodburn to witness the official groundbreaking for the new AWARE Food Bank.

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Local, regional, state and Marion Polk Food Share officials ceremoniously shovel dirt in downtown Woodburn Wednesday, Sept. 14, to celebrate the groundbreaking for a new AWARE Food Bank. Construction is expected to begin later this fall at the site, which is where the former food-bank building was destroyed by an August, 2021, fire.They broke out the golden shovels across from Woodburn City Hall Wednesday morning as a handful of local and regional representatives were on hand to break ground for the building of the new AWARE Food Bank.

Marion Polk Food Share officials said the new food bank is only the second edifice within its wide realm designed and built specifically for its purpose, which extends beyond the distribution of food toward creating a welcome space where those in need can visit and feel comfortable. The site is the same downtown location where the previous bank stood prior to being destroyed by an August, 2021 fire.

"When we decided to rebuild on this site, it's because we wanted to be in the heart of the city," Marion Polk Food Share President and CEO Rick Gaupo said. "This is the largest food pantry (within the food share fold) and only the second one built designed to be a food share."

The other one is in Grand Ronde and is significantly smaller than what is planned for Woodburn. Beyond having all the accoutrements to store and distribute food, a significant part of the building design is proposed to exude an inviting, welcoming environment.

Gabby Pena, who directed AWARE over the past four years, including overseeing pandemic operations and two post-fire moves, made it a point to ensure the facility was a warm setting where people who needed food did not need to feel intimidated asking for it. Pena, who has three school-age children nearing their teens, stepped away from her food-bank position Sept. 1. MPFS Community Programs Coordinator Ben Turner has stepped in as AWARE's interim director.PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Former AWARE Food Bank Director Gabby Pena speaks to the gathering at the groundbreaking for construction of the new food bank. Pena stepped down from her position Sept. 1. Marion Polk Food Share Community Programs Coordinator Ben Turner is serving as AWARE's interim director.

Pena was on hand for the groundbreaking to speak to the gathering of several dozen folks. She stressed how the human connection that is facilitated by AWARE will remain pivotal to the continued success of the overall Woodburn-area community.

Others in attendance included Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron, State Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson, Salem Strategic Initiatives Manager Courtney Knox Busch and Woodburn City Administrator Scott Derickson and Police Chief Marty Pilcher.

"It's great that our state representative, city and county officials all came together to support such an important need," Swenson said. "This will provide crucial services with dignity in the heart of Woodburn."

Alonso Leon and Derickson both spoke about the emphasis in generating the funding to see the new facility to fruition. Derickson said it became an immediate focus of the city from the very day of the destructive fire.

"The city was able to bring about $1.2 million to the table to support this effort," he told the mixed gathering, which included a handful of city officials and employees.

Cameron said the county was able to designate some American Rescue Plan Act funds, stressing that investments in buildings and infrastructure were county priorities with ARPA funds

"This project will benefit the children of the future," Cameron said. "Investments in buildings and infrastructure throughout the entire county and its rural areas is very important for us."PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron speaks in downtown Woodburn at the groundbreaking for the new AWARE Food Bank Wednesday, Sept. 14.

With the groundbreaking ceremony in the rearview mirror, MPFS spokesman Sam Tenney said hands-on construction at the site will probably begin sometime in November. The timeline aims for a spring 2023 opening. After the fire AWARE operations first moved to a vacant building several blocks north owned by Chemeketa Community College. That building sold, and operations then moved to Hoodview Church of God located at 1530 Mt. Hood Ave. where they will likely continue until the new Arthur Street structure is completed.

"The new AWARE Food Bank is designed to be inviting, inclusive, and will allow staff and volunteers to efficiently distribute high-quality, nutritious food to the community," Tenney said in a press release. "Demolition of the old, fire-damaged building was completed in August. The new building will be constructed by Woodburn-based Triplett Wellman Contractors and is designed by Anderson Shirley Architects."

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