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Gresham's Neighborhood Associations foster unique spaces, connectivity to bolster the community

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Mike Elston, president of the North Gresham Neighborhood Association, sits at the Kirk Park playground that was built by his peers. For almost three years, community members fought to find funding to construct a playground at Kirk Park, which would complete the mission of creating a safe place for children to play.

Kirk Park, 1087 N.E. 188th Ave., was born of tragedy. Thirty years ago, a young boy was struck and killed by a speeding car, while playing on the street in the neighborhood. The community vowed to protect other kids, creating the park and naming it in honor of the boy.

Though Kirk Park offered 7 acres of tall trees, open lawns, sports fields, and benches, the addition of play structures made perfect sense. But for a long time there didn't seem to be an easy way forward. While the city of Gresham was supportive of the project, it didn't have the money on hand to make the playground dream a reality.

"The playground project never would have been started without the neighborhood association," said Michael Gonzales, Gresham's neighborhood and community enhancement manager. "In the city's eyes it was a completed park."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - The new Kirk Park playground was designed by neighborhood input.So the North Gresham Neighborhood Association stepped up. They connected with local businesses, worked with city employees to secure grant funding, and whipped up excitement around what a playground at Kirk Park would entail.

And this fall that hard work finally paid off. The neighborhood celebrated the completion of the Kirk Park Playground, which features a slide, climbing structures, Americans with Disabilities Accessible tactile games, musical instruments and a massive swing, perfect for groups of kids or parents.

"Without our neighborhood association this playground never would have happened," said Mike Elston, president of the North Gresham Neighborhood Association. "We stepped up and showed there was another way to fund something like this besides asking the city for money."

"This is our playground — we built this."

There are 13 active neighborhood associations across Gresham — all of which have dedicated members who help define the character of their neighborhoods, ensure new development fits local standards, connect people who otherwise might feel isolated, helm National Night Out gatherings, and bring issues to the city as a unified front.

Neighborhood associations are different from home owners associations because there are no fees attached, and eligibility to get involved is wide open to businesses, nonprofit groups, renters, homeowners, or property owners.

"They aren't just for the people who are home owners — neighborhood associations are for everyone," said Carol Rulla, president of the Coalition of Neighborhood Associations. "The information you get helps you from being surprised about what is happening down the street."

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - Greshams Michael Gonzales is working to bring three inactive neighborhood associations back online. The city requires the groups meet at least two times a year as a general membership, though most meet quarterly or monthly. They are led by volunteer boards that hold annual elections. At the city level, they often communicate with Gonzales and his team. City staff provide resources, informational presentations, land usage, and crime statistics.

"I consider the neighborhoods the fabric of our community," Gonzales said.

One of his tasks has been bringing inactive groups back online. Only three neighborhood associations remain defunct in Gresham — Centennial; Northeast, which is near Mt. Hood Community College; and Central City, which makes up downtown.

"Each neighborhood has its own unique qualities and characteristics that define it, but it's up to the residents who make up the fabric of that neighborhood to help define the identity of how they view themselves and how they want others to view them," Gonzales said. "When neighbors have a vested interest in their neighborhood community and feel that sense of belonging and pride — good things happen."

Building community

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Matt Callison led the charge to reform the Hogan Cedars Neighborhood Association as a way to inform people about the development happening nearby.  On a cloudy Monday morning, Matt Callison walked through Gradin Sports Park, 2303 S.E. Palmquist Road, picking up trash that had been strewn throughout the parking lot.

He hadn't gone with the intent to clean up litter, but it was almost second nature that led him to care for his local park. That same care led Callison and other dedicated neighbors to revive their local neighborhood association in the spring of 2019.

"I wanted to learn more about my neighborhood and how things worked," Callison said.

Land use issues and new development also spurred interest in restarting the longtime dormant group. The first step was changing the name to better fit the feel of the neighborhood. Previous iterations had been called the Mt. Hood Neighborhood — named when the Mt. Hood Highway was planned to cut through the area.

Instead, the newly formed neighborhood association became known as Hogan Cedars. The neighborhood is comprised of retail businesses, apartments, homes, churches, a section of the Springwater Corridor Trail and several schools.

The group has been focused on bringing new sidewalks, better paving and drainage, traffic management, and working with developers to ensure new projects fit the Hogan Cedars' style. And for Callison, who serves as president of the neighborhood association, he has never felt closer to those around him in his 15 years living in the area.

"Talking about projects and holding community gatherings lets you feel connected with those around you," he said.

Gonzales said those connections are more important now than ever before.

"I have noticed the silver lining of the pandemic is neighbors are seeing a lot more of each other," Gonzalez said. "They are out walking their streets and seeing people they maybe have never met before."

Growing Gresham

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: NAOMI BUTLER - Volunteers with the Northwest Neighborhood Association created a rain garden at Bella Vista Park to prevent rainwater runoff from flooding nearby paths and walkways.The Northwest Neighborhood Association is one of the oldest in Gresham, and represents all that can be accomplished within the community.

The group recently found a solution to a problem within Bella Vista Park, an 8.1-acre park at 401 N.W. Bella Vista Drive. Whenever it rained heavily, pathways in the park would overflow with water.

"There would be a river running down the path," said Kat Todd, president of the association.

While an annoyance for those looking to keep their feet dry, that amount of water became dangerous in the winter when it would freeze and ice-over the walkways. Last year, two people slipped and fell, with one gentlemen suffering a head injury.

The group spent years seeking solutions, but most failed or were cost prohibitive. So they came up with the idea of planting a rain garden. Utilizing expertise from city staff, neighbors held a volunteer event in October to complete the garden.

"So far there have been no rivers," Todd said.

Bella Vista Park serves as the heart of the neighborhood. It is a place where community members play and catch up — every late afternoon a group comes together for "Doggy Happy Hour."

"The neighborhood parks are like the water cooler in the office," Gonzales said.

There is a message board near the playground in Bella Vista where the association can post new information about things happening in the neighborhood. Twice a year, they gather for a volunteer event to clean up and maintain the natural area. Those events are more than just work parties — the neighborhood treats it like a party. They have coffee, popsicles, and Todd always bakes some oatmeal chocolate cookies.

"Parks are such an essential place," she said.

But the group does more than just steward Bella Vista. The Northwest Neighborhood Association has been key in guiding the new developments that have been exploding throughout the area. They worked within the city code to prevent one set of apartments from building too high, and pushed back against city plans to create "nonsensical roads."

A grouping of apartments being constructed along Powell Boulevard, abutting Bella Vista Park, were being mandated by the city to connect Northwest Wonderview Court with a busy road nearby. Wonderview is narrow, with no sidewalks, and the new connection would represent a crush of traffic flowing past places where children play.

"After years of meeting with the city, we were able to get them to vacate the road," Todd said. "These are political things we are able to do as one group — I have more of a voice in Gresham because of my neighborhood association."

Todd, who has lived in the Northwest neighborhood for 20 years, said joining an association is the best way to stay abreast of what is occurring within the city. And it provides an avenue for change.

"Neighborhood associations make Gresham a better place to live," Todd said.

Coalition of support

Gresham's neighborhood associations are far from siloed in their mission of uplifting the community, as leaders of each individual region work together within the Coalition of Gresham Neighborhood Associations to provide structure, support and leadership.

The coalition is made up of board members from all the various neighborhood associations. They weigh in on issues facing the city and provide guidance for the various groups.

"We can draw on our collected knowledge and help with issues about how to handle a challenge like speeding or what resources you can find at the city," said Carol Rulla, president of the Coalition of Neighborhood Associations and resident of the Kelly Creek Neighborhood.

The coalition weighs in on the annual council work plan; expands the minimum 300-foot radius developers must use to notify homeowners of their intent to build; and keeps pressing issues on the forefront of city leadership like sidewalks along a dangerous stretch of roadway.

When the city of Gresham removed oral testimony during City Council meetings a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, the coalition led the charge to bring back public comment during meetings. In the past, the group has also advocated for adding public comment instructions on the council agenda page and publicizing the council compensation schedule on the city website.

Its most visible event this year was hosting a candidate forum to allow the community to get to know the various political hopefuls vying for public office in the 2020 November election. The candidate forum — which was held online — also provided a platform for people to ask questions.

"A lot of people let us know they appreciated the forum," Rulla said. "It helped them make a decision."


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