Blue Heron beginnings: Commentary on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project

Picture this in the Blue Heron Mill site:

People come from all over the world to Willamette Falls, to “feel the thunder,” and to gain inspiration from the immense beauty of this natural feature. A pedestrian trail and boardwalk runs the length of the mill site along the Willamette River. Its centerpiece: a converted historic mill building with massive, sturdy old-growth wood beams that support a high roof. Under this roof, a teeming marketplace houses Oregon City’s new and expanded farmers market, and a myriad of food-related shops and restaurants. It rivals Pikes Place Marketin Seattle and the Grandville Island market in Vancouver, B.C. Outside, a crowded plaza looks down on the water garden that includes the splashing flow of restored tailraces into the Willamette River.

But more awaits the visitors, even on the railroad side of Main Street. Huge windows in behemoth historic industrial buildings allow tourists to peer in on an array of food making enterprises, and then draw them inside for tours and tasting. Cheese making like Beecher’s in Pike’s Place Market or the Tillamook factory. Chocolate making like TCHO at Pier 17 in San Francisco. An endless parade of bottles along a conveyor pass a Main Street window, as people watch them filled with beer from the Blue Heron site’s brewery. A mill grinds Willamette Valley grain — as occurred a century earlier — after arrival by train or by barges in the Basin. Just as the Imperial Mills served a local market — advising in nineteenth-century ads that people wanting to buy feed “must furnish their own sacks” — but also exported flour to England, these new factories sell their products locally, for example in the riverside marketplace, but also export their products to far-away markets by truck, rail, and water transport. They provide family-wage jobs.

Food preparation and processing, perhaps more than any other economic development opportunity, offers the possibility for the Willamette Falls Legacy Project (WFLP) to reconcile two aspirations that might otherwise appear irreconcilable: opening up the falls to public access and tourism, and simultaneously maintaining a traditional industrial employment base.

The legacy of the Blue Heron Mill site is manufacturing. For almost two centuries, Oregon City has been making things.

Walk into a tavern like the 505, right outside the gates of Blue Heron, and you will hear from former mill workers and community members the resounding sentiment that some form of manufacturing employment remain at the mill site with its redevelopment.

Oregon City stands at the frontier between the vast agricultural production lands of the Willamette Valley and the market of an entire metropolitan region. The main north-south railroad line of the Pacific Coast passes from the valley through our town to this market, as does an abundant water source, the Willamette River. Three major highways, I-205, and state highways 99E and 213, also link the valley to the market, through Oregon City. These types of infrastructure resources turn industrial lands into what our land-use rules define as prime industrial lands.

Oregon City’s early history reflected its geographic advantage. The flour, woolen and shoddy mills were early forms of Willamette Valley food and agricultural processing. John McLoughlin built his flour mill for the Hudson Bay Co., which had an enormous granary in Champoeg in the 1840s. The workings of the Imperial Mills included storage and landing facilities as far up the Willamette River as Newberg. Flocks of sheep form part of the panorama from the window of a southbound Amtrak train today, as they no doubt would have from the window of a train in the 1880s.

In more recent years, Willamette Valley wheat declined, and gave way to agricultural products like grass seed. Now, though, there are signs of a wheat comeback. After grass-seed prices collapsed with the housing market in 2008, some Willamette Valley farmers started making a switch back not only to wheat, but to other grains like rye, beans like pinto and garbanzos, and quinoa. In January, the second annual Cascadia Grains Conference, held in Tacoma, Wash., discussed how wheat and other grains might make a return west of the Cascades. OPB passed along a report from the lead organizer: “[A]rtisan bakeries, breweries and local-food operations have told him that wheat grown West of the Cascades has its own unique flavor profile.” The conference also considered future challenges, including “linking producers and buyers and reviving the infrastructure to store, transport and market the grain.”

With foresight, Oregon City could position itself as a hub of such infrastructure, storage, transport, marketing and processing, not only of grains but all kinds of Clackamas County and Willamette Valley agricultural products. Oregon City can draw on a lot of good research and policy development, such as Clackamas County’s Agricultural Investment Plan and its Agriculture and Foodshed Strategic Plan. And, an Oregon City agricultural strategy could take advantage of a number of available financing mechanisms: For example, Business Oregon’s Infrastructure Finance Authority provides types of loans, including Special Public Works loans of up to $10 million. Several Business Oregon loans are targeted only towards the traded sector, which includes agriculture.

The WFLP provides an opening to seize this economic development opportunity. The public process and consultants’ studies have yielded some hopeful initial results. For example, the project identified the food industry as one of a number of economic opportunities for the Blue Heron site at both the second and third Public Interactive Events last fall. Further, the project’s web page describing the “framework plan” states regarding possible rezoning of the site: “This framework model is the base requirement to rezone the site from Industrial to a new mixed use zone that will also allow compatible light industrial uses.”

Such a “new mixed use zone” that includes light industrial, if actually implemented, would be an exciting prospect, and would represent the kind of innovation in city-building that might allow us to put a stamp on our era. Further, it could open the door to a broader economic development strategy for Oregon City based on the food industry. The Blue Heron site could become the first of a number of other mixed-use light industrial food industry “nodes” along the Union Pacific railroad: the area south of Canemah, the 14th and Washington corridor, which already has a core “food cluster” represented by Spicer Brothers Produce and Tony’s Fish Market, and which features some restorable railroad spurs; and the area around the I-205/Highway 213 interchange, which has benefitted recently from the infrastructure improvement of the “Jughandle” interchange.

The governmental partners that make up the WLFP could, upon adoption of a “framework plan” for the Blue Heron site, take the next step and establish a cooperative partnership to create an Oregon City food industry business cluster, or a food-inovation district:

“A food-innovation district is a geographic concentration of food-oriented businesses, services, and community activities that local governments support through planning and economic development initiatives in order to promote a positive business environment, spur regional food system development and increase access to local food.”

This definition comes from an excellent study called “Food Innovation Districts: An Economic Gardening Tool,” available at: “Economic gardening” is an economic development technique that emphasizes the cultivation and expansion of existing local business. A strength of Oregon City’s economic development manager Eric Underwood’s candidacy for that position was his success with economic gardening in his prior position in Tualatin; he might be a good candidate to spearhead a food industry business cluster strategy in Oregon City.

One measure of success of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project will be the degree to which it maintains Oregon City’s deeply ingrained tradition of manufacturing, and the family-wage incomes that manufacturing has provided. Let’s invite the world to come see the falls, and to come watch us make things.

Oregon City resident James Nicita is a former city commissioner.

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