by: PHOTO COURTESY: CITY OF OREGON CITY - A reflecting pool near Willamette Fall in Oregon City provides one of the many tourism opportunities that the city is hoping to capitalize on.Oregon City officials say they’re ready to lead a public process designed to help transform a former paper mill alongside Willamette Falls into a regionally significant economic redevelopment project and visitor destination.

Oregonians will be invited to shape the 23-acre site of the bankrupt Blue Heron Paper Co. in collaboration with Oregon City, Metro, Clackamas County and the state.

The resulting vision could reconnect the public with North America’s second largest waterfall, significant wildlife habitat and an important cultural site for native tribes along the Willamette River. It also will seek to support Oregon City’s goal to reinvigorate the downtown as a hub of employment, shopping, business, tourism and housing.

“If we do this right, Willamette Falls will be a defining piece of Oregon City — a place you go to work or shop or eat, a place to connect with your neighbors, a place to just relax and take in the view. It also has the potential to become an Oregon landmark,” said Mayor Doug Neeley.

City commissioners on Wednesday are set to consider an agreement between Oregon City and the bankruptcy trustee, Peter McKittrick. McKittrick would agree not to abandon the property with the court prior to April 1, 2014, once the city enters into a contract with the lead consultant for the planning process. At any time during the process, McKittrick could sell the property or be ordered by the court to abandon the property and terminate the agreement. The city would provide a minimum of $400,000 to fund the planning process.

For more than a year, the regional government has spent about $500,000 studying the property and the risks associated with buying it. But Metro Sustainability Director Jim Desmond said that the site’s zoning and development issues make Oregon City more suitable to lead the visioning for the falls.

“It’s really about a vision for their downtown,” Desmond said. “The site ... is about half the size of their current downtown. Those decisions should be made locally.”

Desmond said Metro will still be available to help Oregon City with public involvement, land-use regulations and real-estate expertise. Oregon City has applied to Metro for a planning grant to pay for the visioning of the site.

Funding the project

This planning process marks the next step for the property at the south end of downtown Oregon City. After Blue Heron closed operations, laying off 175 employees, the property was put up for sale under the management of a bankruptcy trustee.

With support from state agencies, Metro and Oregon City officials evaluated the site and conducted extensive investigations during the past two years to assess opportunities and risks. The partnership gained a clearer understanding of the possibilities for reusing historic structures, options for managing stormwater, the extent of environmental conditions, and the significant costs necessary to stabilize the site.

The partnership remains committed to being a catalyst for the property’s transformation, working toward five core values: economic redevelopment, public access, historic preservation, cultural interpretation and habitat restoration.

Oregon City issued a request for proposals, seeking a consultant to help with visioning and master planning. Public dialogue could begin as early as May.

The resulting vision will facilitate rezoning, preparing part of the site for economic redevelopment and part for an outdoor destination. Public partners hope planning for the property will create an opportunity to purchase the portion necessary to let visitors experience the falls, offer cultural interpretation and historic preservation, and restore habitat along the Willamette River. Meanwhile, by eliminating uncertainty, they hope that this work will prepare the rest of the site for private investment.

The Joint Legislative Ways and Means Subcommittee on Capital Construction heard testimony early this month on a proposal to provide a 50 percent match, up to $5 million, of state lottery money for the Willamette Falls project if the project’s partners can come up with other money for it.

Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette and Oregon City Commissioner Kathy Roth travel to Washington, D.C., this month to discuss whether the federal Environmental Protection Agency could play a role in cleaning up the site, which has been in use for heavy industry for more than 170 years.

Throughout the planning process, the property will remain on the market.

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