2019: Changing face of Cornelius earns national plaudits
Editor's note: This story is part of the News-Times' special series, "Decade in Review." This series features three stories that helped to define each year of the 2010s. These can retell single stories that mattered to readers of the time, a saga that played out across many articles, and even stories that were crowded to the margins by other news at the time but have made a lasting impact on our region.
If you told someone in 2009 that 10 years later, Cornelius would be recognized as an exemplar of good government, civic engagement and creative innovation, they probably would have laughed at you.
Even for the first half of this decade, Cornelius struggled under the yoke of a negative reputation — the Great Recession reduced many of its biggest-name businesses to empty husks, and the city government itself was best known for dysfunction and backbiting.
When Rob Drake, former mayor of Beaverton, was hired as city manager in 2012, he began to clean house. The volatile politics of the Cornelius City Council stabilized after a contentious 2011 recall election that booted three-fifths of its members, including then-Mayor Neal Knight, from office. Under the guidance of Drake and Police Chief Ken Summers, the city dissolved its scandal-wracked police department in 2014 and contracted with the Washington County Sheriff's Office for service instead. And in 2016, Drake poached Ryan Wells, a strong proponent of urban renewal, from the municipal government of neighboring Hillsboro to lead the Cornelius Community Development Department.
Drake, Wells and a supportive City Council led by Mayor Jef Dalin embarked on an ambitious plan to radically overhaul Cornelius — without crowding out longtime residents of the relatively low-income community.
After city voters narrowly rejected a tax levy to pay for a new public library, library director Karen Hill spearheaded a campaign to raise enough money to replace the aging, undersized Cornelius Public Library anyway, without hiking property taxes. Ground broke on Cornelius Place, a mixed-use building shared between the library and affordable apartments for adults 55 and older, in late 2017.
2019 was the year that things started to rapidly fall into place for Cornelius.
In January, Washington County completed a two-year reconstruction of 10th Avenue, improving the traffic flow on the city's most important north-south route and adding bicycle lanes, larger street signs and other safety features.
On March 30, the Cornelius Public Library celebrated its grand opening. Hundreds came to marvel at the newest, most modern public building this side of 185th Avenue. The City Council began holding its meetings there almost immediately.
In June, city councilors approved a plan to rebrand downtown Cornelius as the "TenBlock District" and foster a multicultural mix of businesses in the area. In July, they approved an urban renewal plan, capping the amount of property tax revenue the city and other agencies receive at their 2019 levels and directing the tax increment above that cap toward a list of renewal projects, such as a plaza space and redevelopment of some of the derelict buildings left behind by the recession.
"We've had a rough background here, and things have changed," Drake said in July.
It remains to be seen how all of this work will pay off — although there's no denying that between the reforms and changing of the guard at City Hall; streetscape improvements done by Metro, Washington County and the city; new buildings for Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, the Cornelius Public Library and St. Anthony's Catholic Church; and booming residential development, especially in the city's south, Cornelius is a more attractive and vibrant place than it was a decade ago.
Over the summer, Cornelius was honored as one of 10 U.S. cities to be named a 2019 All-America City. This award from the National Civic League is a badge of recognition for "communities that leverage civic engagement, collaboration, inclusiveness and innovation to successfully address local issues."
City officials wasted no time in lining up business sponsors and installing banners along North Adair Street to celebrate the award, which they spoke about with unrestrained enthusiasm and pride. After the roller-coaster decade that Cornelius went through, it's hard to blame them.
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