East Multnomah County signs off on 2021
In many ways it has been a tumultuous 2021.
New leaders were brought into East Multnomah County, businesses fought to stay afloat, plans and dreams were drafted, City Halls were built, spectators cheered on high school athletes, and the pandemic continued to drag on as everyone did their best to get by.
And while many look ahead to the new year, and are resolved to start visiting the gym more regularly, these are some of the top stories from the past year.
Gresham elects a new mayor
It took many extra weeks, and hand-wringing over only a baker's dozen difference in votes, but at the start of the year Gresham elected a new mayor for the first time in nearly 15 years.
Mayor Travis Stovall was sworn-in to office as Gresham's 28th mayor on Jan. 5 of this year. The longtime Gresham resident and small business owner made history as the city's first Black mayor.
Stovall took over for former Mayor Shane Bemis, who unexpectedly stepped down in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. Former Councilor Karylinn Echols served in the interim before Stovall won a nail-biter election against Gresham City Council President Eddy Morales last fall.
"We can lift up Gresham and everyone in this community," Stovall said.
His first year at the helm has been busy, with lingering issues around the pandemic and a city budget deficit of $13.3 million he inherited when stepping into the position.
"We can build systems and programs to take on the challenges our community faces and encourage development," Stovall said.
At the start of the year businesses and the state continued to butt heads over what it meant to safely operate during the pandemic, which had surpassed even the wildest estimates.
On Jan. 1 businesses in Estacada, Sandy and East Multnomah County joined in an Open Oregon movement, offering a reduced amount of indoor seating despite Gov. Kate Brown's executive order at the time that prohibited indoor dining.
"They're keeping things clean and at half-capacity," said Molalla resident Jeremy Harshger after dining at Eagle Creek Saloon outside of Estacada on the day of the protest opening. "They should be able to collect a paycheck."
The goal of Open Oregon was to showcase the brutal consequences of state-mandated closures, especially on small businesses. Many local leaders signed on, including Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, Estacada Mayor Sean Drinkwine, then Troutdale Mayor-elect Randy Lauer, and then Gresham City Councilor-elect Sue Piazza.
Twelve months later it doesn't seem like much has changed. As many receive their booster shots against the novel coronavirus, the omicron variant has been spreading like wildfire across the country, seemingly more contagious than its cousins.
It was a strange, but welcome, sight — high school football in the spring.
After so many outstanding student athletes had seasons canceled by the pandemic, everyone breathed a sigh of relief — through a mask — when football teams suited up for an unusual, shortened spring season this year.
Few spectators were allowed in the stands, and many games were canceled with health and safety protocols and outbreaks, but every Mt. Hood Conference squad got several games together out on the field.
Sandy High coach Josh Dill described seeing his players back on the field like celebrating a Hail Mary touchdown pass — improbable but unbelievably exciting.
"Finally getting to play has mentally and emotionally lifted our spirits," Dill said in March.
It all was possible after Gov. Brown gave the green light for fall sports — including football, volleyball, cross country and soccer. In two weeks organizers set schedules, secured officials, created waivers and formulated safety measures around COVID-19. Football practices ramped up in late February.
Estacada football's coach Andy Mott described being able to play as a "shock."
"During the delays all I could think about was trying to play for our seniors," Mott said. "It was important for our coaching staff to give them one last season."
The 2021 spring season made for another oddity, as those same teams turned around and played this past fall, giving two football seasons in the same calendar year.
The other strange aspect, the sunny weather.
"We are used to playing in the rain, so the sun has been nice," said former Estacada quarterback Isaiah Schaffer with a laugh, as he got to play one last time as a senior for the Rangers.
Halsey project shapes up
The three small cities in East Multnomah County — Troutdale, Fairview and Wood Village — all teamed up to take great strides toward realizing a dream of transforming Halsey in Main Street.
The aptly named Main Streets on Halsey, born in 2017, would have the three cities create a shared vision of development for the major roadway as it runs from Fairview Parkway to the Sandy River. The ultimate goal is to bring in more boutiques, apartments and restaurants while facilitating pedestrian pathways, trails, and bicycle lanes.
"The three cities are working to create a similar sort of neighborhood-feel on Halsey," said Wood Village Mayor Scott Harden. "Folks want to see shopping, places to eat, events and entertainment."
It's not just about tourism, but a way to improve amenities for residents.
The cooperation between the three municipalities has been commendable, and last spring they agreed on new codes and zoning to clear the way for future development and entrepreneurs to choose East County.
"People want to visit and work in places that are fun to walk and spend time in," said Troutdale City Manager Ray Young. "We are working with Wood Village and Fairview because we all want to increase the vibrancy of our communities."
Major League Baseball in Gresham?
What felt like a pipe dream took small steps toward reality as a team swung for the fences and pitched a massive East Multnomah County baseball stadium project that would bring professional ball to Gresham.
Lynn Lashbrook, Jeffrey DeBois and Barry Smith drafted plans for what a major sporting venue could look like in Gresham. The MultCO Baseball Park was envisioned for Multnomah County's Vance Property, 90 acres between 182nd and 190th Avenues. There would be a 38,000-seat baseball stadium with a view of Mount Hood from home plate; 3.25 million square feet of production, research and design facilities; new workforce and affordable housing units; a second 40,000-seat stadium for football, soccer and rugby; and 45 acres of parks and recreation.
"I think the eastside deserves development like this," Lashbrook said. "Day and night we have been working on this — you can't get to first base without a vision."
And while talks stalled, and not much forward momentum was made in bringing the Majors to Oregon, Gresham established itself in the conversation for future development projects, whatever they may be. Perhaps the future project could include not baseball as the centerpiece, but an amphitheater, large green space, community marketplace or some other entertainment complex as the main draw.
"One of the reasons I got involved with this in the first place is because how excited I get thinking about what this would mean for East County," Smith said.
Summer of (in-person) fun
Though many events were still shuttered with the pandemic, this past year saw the return of several events that got people together, safely, for some community fun.
In Gresham that was the return of the annual Gresham Arts Festival, which brings hundreds of amazing artists and thousands of visitors into the community. There was a buzz in the air, perhaps as people enjoyed each other's company after being isolated for so many months. "I heard really good things about the event — great people, great venue — so I wanted to be a part of the festivities," said artist Katie Flack, who helmed the booth "Katie Flack Painted Rocks."
The layout was different, but for the better most artists agreed. Everything was set up at the Gresham Arts Plaza, 401 N.E. Second St., with booths lining the pathways through the park and creating small plazas of creativity for the artists. There were bubbles, balloons, music and laughter.
"Look at it — everyone is loving being at the plaza," said Joe Bennett in his eighth year displaying art at the festival. "It's spread out differently, but really showcases everyone's work."
There was also plenty of laughter and fun in Troutdale this summer as well, as the city restarted the annual First Friday Art Walk.
The event has long been a cornerstone in downtown, as the East Historic Columbia River Highway closes to vehicle traffic between Buxton Road and Kibling Street. The downtown galleries showcase local artists, while the restaurants and businesses offer fun specials and deals.
"This marks the 20th anniversary of the (First Friday Art Walk)," said Mayor Randy Lauer. "What a fitting year to celebrate such a milestone."
Building City Hall
In Wood Village it was a celebration this September as community members and city leaders gathered for a festive ribbon cutting at the new City Hall.
"We needed to find a way to encourage people not only to come to meetings, but to have a space of their own," said Mayor Scott Harden. "We are incredibly excited about this place — everyone is welcome here."
The building, fronting Donald L Robertson City Park at 24300 N.E. Halsey St., is impressive. The 9,000-square-foot building doesn't follow the pattern for stuffy municipal buildings.
Instead there is a prominent overhanging porch made from heavy timber beams blended with the surrounding rustic parkland. The warm wood design, with lots of recycled material, flows into the spacious central grand hall where council chambers is located, with space for 80 visitors to meetings.
There is a huge wall of windows pouring in natural light; offices for city staff to spread out in; a catering kitchen; storage rooms; event space; and more. Much of the building is open for community groups or private events like family reunions or weddings.
Outside there is ample parking, a splash pad for kids, and a veterans' garden.
"This all was designed with the community in mind, not just council and staff," said Wood Village City Manager Greg Dirks.
Now hiring police
It was a difficult year for the Gresham Police Department, as they faced cuts from the citywide budget deficit; historic levels of shootings and violence; and cuts to popular programs.
But perhaps most concerning for the public has been how understaffed the department has been and the difficulties in bringing in more qualified candidates.
The Gresham Department is down 10% of sworn-officers, or 12 full-time positions, after retirements, departures and officers stepping away from law enforcement all together. That lack of officers forced leadership to shift employees away from popular programs to bolster the ranks of patrol and investigations.
So Gresham has temporarily shuttered the Traffic Unit, Neighborhood Enforcement Team, and local participation in the regional Transit Division.
The issue isn't unique to Gresham — law enforcement agencies across the country are struggling with recruitment and retention. Adding to the headache locally is that it takes about a year and a half to properly train a sworn-officer, so reinforcements won't be coming anytime soon.
There have been some ideas bandied about, and a review from BerryDunn Consulting Group, which is conducting an organizational review of the Gresham Police Department, could generate more solutions.
Gresham could expand the duties of the Cadet program or the Gresham Citizen Volunteers in Policing, giving them some of the livability tasks the NET Team accomplished. The city could bring back retired officers in part-time roles; create a Community Safety Officer to do parking tickets; or forming a Reserve Officer Program to fill gaps during any other unexpected departures.
Other community members have suggested using non-police organizations to address safety concerns — mentorship programs in schools, nonprofit organizations to support the homeless, or social service workers to aid anyone in mental health crisis.
More noteworthy moments from 2021:
- A vocal group of residents saved Shaull Woods, a green space home to a bevy of flora and fauna in the heart of Gresham, from development.
- East County high schools tweaked plans to allow the class of 2021 to graduate during in-person ceremonies in front of loved ones.
- By definition Gresham had two mass shootings — stipulated by at least four victims — during a year in which gun violence spiked across the region.
- Residents scrambled to find AC units as temperatures peaked at a record-high 116 degrees this summer.
- Boring-native shot putter Ryan Crouser smashed the world record with a toss of 23.37 meters (76-feet 8-inces) during the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene. He would go on to win a gold medal in the shot put during the Tokyo Olympics.
- Troutdale cheered on teen Caiden Madzelan, aka "Troutdale Ninja," as he made his television debut on American Ninja Warrior.
- Barlow girls water polo won the 2021 state championship by beating Mountainside 16-10 to cap a great run through the final tournament.
- Abigail Hayes, of Damascus, finished as the fourth-runner-up in the Miss America Pageant.
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