Grand Ronde tribe buys paper-mill site in Oregon City
The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde are celebrating becoming the new owners of the former Blue Heron Paper Co. mill in Oregon City, a nearly 23-acre site at Willamette Falls that they consider to be sacred ground.
Willamette Falls is the only remaining site in the state where the tribe can continue their tradition of harvesting lamprey for food. And for a $15.25 million purchase price officially recorded Aug. 15, the tribes have reclaimed a key piece of the large swath of land they ceded to the federal government in 1855.
Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy said the site is of significant cultural importance as a gathering place for tribes to trade from across the Pacific Northwest. Hosting the regional trading and fishing, the Clackamas and Tumwater tribes had their historic Charcowah and Kosh-huk-shix villages at the falls.
"This is a historic day for the Grand Ronde Tribe and our people," Kennedy said. "Since 1855, the government has worked to disconnect our people from our homelands. Today, we're reclaiming a piece of those lands and resurrecting our role as caretakers to Willamette Falls — a responsibility left to us by our ancestors."
Grand Ronde leaders had to pay former property owner George Heidgerken nearly seven times what he paid for the property five years ago. In early 2018, Heidgerken rejected a more than $5 million offer from public partners planning to build a walking path to Willamette Falls; he paid $2.2 million in bankruptcy court for the property in 2014.
Metro, on behalf of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, still holds an easement through the tribe's new property to build the public walkway along the Blue Heron paper mill site's waterfront. Since the tribe and Heidgerken agreed to a tentative purchase price and three-month due-diligence period starting in May, Oregon City, Clackamas County, regional and state partners have been working with the tribe throughout the sale process to shape the future of the property.
As previously reported, governmental officials are optimistic that through the tribal purchase they have overcome past issues obtaining permit-application signatures from Heidgerken.
As part of the purchase, the tribe has signed documents with state officials that establish a scope of work outlining known contaminants at the site and limiting the tribe's liability in cleaning up those contaminants. Also on Aug. 15, the tribe filed an agreement with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality that recognizes the two parties' mutual desire to protect the environment "through applicable provisions" that regulate toxic cleanups.
"We will be creating a new future for the place, but certainly the first step for the site will be healing, because it's been through so much," said Tribal Council Member Kathleen George.
Tribal leaders hope to begin work on the site "as quickly as possible" and continue to work with their public partners. A mixed-use zoning code that the city approved in 2014 will regulate any future construction at other parts of the site, calling for "a vibrant mix of shops, restaurants, offices and housing" in a network of streets friendly to walking and biking.
"We are certainty fortunate that the mixed-use zoning for the site gives us a lot of flexibility," George said.
The tribe repeatedly has said it has no interest in an Oregon City casino.
"We are reinvesting in our casino right here in Grand Ronde," George said, "so our focus for gaming is right here in Grand Ronde."
Zoning of the district gives the tribe flexibility to build hotels, apartments, museums, markets, offices and light industrial buildings. Whatever the details of mixed use there might look like, George said that the tribe wants new and revitalized historic buildings at Willamette Falls to reconnect Oregonians with the area.
"We want people to come there and connect there," she said. "We're taking a moment to celebrate, and there will be a lot of planning."
As the new property owner, George said the tribe will be looking for opportunities to share "amazing stories" about Coyote creating the falls.
"As we redevelop this place, we're certainly going to look at opportunities to restore this landscape," she said. "We will be looking at opportunities to restore native plants that belong there."
Construction of the initial phase of the walkway is expected to exceed the $12.5 million originally budgeted by as much as $20 million, which is the amount envisioned to be allocated in Metro's bond measure referred to voters on the November ballot. The confederation is still in its due-diligence period for an approximately 18-acre property upstream of the falls, consisting of about a mile and a half of riverfront on the Oregon City side.
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