As the Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition (WFHAC) continues to expand its reach across the region, Executive Director Siobhan Taylor has coined an acronym that she is fond of repeating.
"It's that spirit of A.L.A.H.A. — Act Like A Heritage Area," Taylor said. "One of the things I'm happiest about is we're becoming a resource in the community on heritage and information about the falls ... We're sort of the clearing house for heritage activities, events and needs in the community as we work toward becoming nationally recognized."
Indeed, "act" is the key word in Taylor's acronym, as the group continues to push for the honor of becoming the first National Heritage Area (NHA) on the West Coast. Designated by Congress and overseen by the National Parks Service, NHAs — of which there are 49 across the United States — are "places where historic, cultural and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes." WFHAC has been working for more than 10 years to bring an NHA designation to the Willamette Falls area — a project that has inched along in fits and starts but may soon ramp up as the group reaches several key milestones.
The idea behind the heritage area is to tell the story of the falls — which were a crucial gathering place for the first Native Americans to settle in the area — and how they influenced the growth of culture and industry up and down a 56-mile stretch of the Willamette River. One of the most important components of the NHA application process is the completion of a feasibility study, which lays out the story of the area and explains its importance in written form. After trading drafts back and forth with the National Parks Service, the coalition is finally ready to submit a final draft in February.
"At the (Washington) D.C. level, administrations change and staff at National Parks (Service) and other places change, so we decided this last time is it — we're done," Taylor said. "We're not doing any more revisions — the final one is being given to National Parks in February and at the same time we'll be giving it to (U.S. Rep.) Kurt Schrader. He is very interested in taking this forward to Congress."
Finalizing the feasibility study was difficult in no small part because of philosophical disagreements about what the primary "story" of the area was.
"We sat down with a representative from the state historic preservation office," Taylor said. "We created a whole inventory of all of the heritage sites we're talking about, and they came back to us and said, 'Well your main themes are settlement at the end of the Oregon trail.' ... We said, 'What about the industrial heritage?' and they said, 'That's a story but not the main story.'"
Taylor found that narrow line of thinking to be frustrating, but WFHAC Board President Jim Mattis said he eventually came around to it.
"Personally I'm not dissatisfied," he said. "While it is true that the falls area was the birthplace of industry in the West — no question about it — I don't think that is what people, particularly in the East, recognize this area to be.
"There's lots of stories with the 56 river miles that we want to tell, but in terms of being nationally significant, I think it's going to end up being 'settlement' (as a theme). Then you can go beyond that once you get people here."
While WFHAC waits out the Congressional decision-making process — the exact timeline for which is unclear — there are plenty of other initiatives to keep busy with.
"We're right now updating our website," Taylor said. "Which also tied into being an 'umbrella' organization because on the website we'll have a blog-style calendar about what's going on throughout the entire 56-river-mile area — all of these resources will be sending me their updates."
The website will also feature an interactive map developed in a partnership with Clackamas County Tourism & Cultural Affairs (CCTCA).
"People can go there and click on a heritage site, and immediately the information about it comes up — the website and a (Google) street view," Taylor said.
By February, WFHAC also hopes to release the results of a marketing assessment of the heritage area that was funded by a CCTCA grant.
"It examines everything from visitor readiness to name recognition and location recognition," Taylor said. "(We tested) what draws people and what they want to do when they come here."
2018 also marks the 175th anniversary of the Oregon Trail, and WFHAC is partnering with the Oregon City Parks and Recreation Department to put on a concert by The Trail Band July 27 at the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive & Visitor Information Center in Oregon City.
"We're very, very excited about it," Taylor said. "They have a great following and they play the music of the Oregon Trail."
Finally, 2018 will also see the planning of a new exhibit at the Museum of the Oregon Territories (MOOT) that will tell the story of the Willamette Falls area.
"Once the planning document is finished, we will issue an RFP (request for proposals) to actually build an exhibit," Taylor said. "So that's going to be fantastic."