The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde announced that they entered into an agreement to buy the former Blue Heron Paper Co. mill in Oregon City.
In addition to the nearly 23-acre "sacred" site at Willamette Falls, the coalition of local tribes also is in the middle of a 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. Tribal chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy said the property purchases will further the Grand Ronde's vision for "cultural revitalization and strengthening our ties to our homelands."
"If there are any contaminations that need to be cleaned up, all of that would be revealed during this (due-diligence) process," Kennedy said. "It's deep in our heart and in our souls what this means to us."
With purchase-and-sale paperwork in place for both properties, the Confederated Tribes and the current property owners have agreed on potential purchase prices, but the exact amount of the sales will remain confidential until finalized. Willamette Falls property owner George Heidgerken recently 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.
Heidgerken, a resident of Centralia, Washington, last year paid the county more than $46,300 in back taxes and more than $39,000 to Oregon City for years of unpaid utilities at Willamette Falls. Local residents hope the tribes will be a more responsible owner, and the group has said that they have no interest in an Oregon City casino.
"We've received a lot of positive feedback from the area," Kennedy said. "Congratulations is often the word that I'm hearing from people in Oregon City about the property purchases."
As previously reported, Willamette Falls Legacy Project Manager Brian Moore has said that the $200,000 that Heidgerken still owes to the public partners in the proposed walkway construction to Willamette Falls would be paid out of the property's sale proceeds.
If the tribes take ownership of the Willamette Falls property and want to construct anything there, they will be subject to the mixed-use zoning code that the city approved in 2014. The new zoning calls for "a vibrant mix of shops, restaurants, offices and housing" in a network of streets friendly to walking and biking. Zoning of the district gives the site's owner flexibility to build hotels, apartments, museums, markets, offices and light industrial buildings. In a nod to some of the redevelopment that's occurred in Portland's Pearl District, the city's approved code also calls for four key historic buildings on the site to be preserved and repurposed "if possible."
As for the riverfront property upstream at 19100 S. Highway 99E, commercial real estate firm Kidder Mathews advertised the sale of the property for $1.45 million, but the tribe's offer may have been accepted at a higher or lower price. This property with 16,000 square feet of warehouse space is owned by Frank Fandrich's Pulp Properties LCC; Fandrich died at the age of 75 in February 2018, and his estate attorneys currently are engaged in a complicated legal case in circuit court.
While you currently can't launch a boat from the property below Willamette Falls, Confederated Tribes hopes to purchase the upriver property to gain river access and "new opportunities to work with our partners on future projects." At this upriver historic docking facility for local paper mills, logs were transferred into the Willamette and floated to mills, while paper rolls were barged back to the warehouse for transport.
Reclaiming ancestral lands
Willamette Falls is the only place that local tribes can continue their traditions of harvesting lamprey for sustenance. Lamprey, which often are referred to as eels by local Native people, are long jawless fish called skakwal in their native language, Chinuk Wawa.
Grand Ronde tribal leaders ceded Willamette Falls and other lands from northern California to the Columbia River to the U.S. government in the 1850s. Various local tribes — principally the Kalapuya, Molalla, Chasta, Umpqua and Rogue River groups — were forced onto a reservation in Yamhill County.
In 1954, Congress passed the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act to sever much of the government's official relationship with the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. This relationship had included an understanding that Native peoples could continue to fish at Willamette Falls.
Grand Ronde members lobbied Congress beginning in the early 1970s and eventually achieved restoration as a federally recognized tribe in 1983. Kennedy said they've been interested in purchasing the Willamette Falls land for decades.
"From the personal perspective, I'm an elder of the tribe and I was alive before termination in 1954, and we were harvesting eels at that time," Kennedy said.
Kennedy's grandfather was Chief John Wacheno, who was a Willamette Valley Treaty signer. Tribal members' relationship and reliance on Willamette Falls, even after their removal to a reservation, has been well documented and upheld by courts granting their Willamette River fishing rights.
"As Native American people, we're tied to the lands, and the taking away of our lands was a ripping apart of our hearts," Kennedy said. "This is a tremendous opportunity for us, and this is time for us to reclaim our ancestral lands."
Tenants may have to leave
Although the tribes have "no definite plan" for the sites right now, some tenants are nervous about eventually being evicted.
Randy Selvester, whose Chip & Dales Iron Works has been in business 25 years, said his lease will expire at the end of the year and he is worried that he will be forced off the Highway 99E property. Selvester said there are two other businesses located on the property, another metal fabrication shop and a boat-repair facility.
Estate attorney Emily Pringle wrote in a recent court filing that administering the Fandrich estate "has been rather unusual and difficult" due to the nature of his real estate and various issues arising during the past year.
"The property was littered with a significant amount of old vehicles, tires, scrap materials, broken equipment, a boat, barges and various other items," Pringle wrote to the circuit court in justifying nearly $19,000 in attorney fees as of April 1. "It has taken months and significant work to clean the property and prepare the property for sale, which has been made more difficult due to the lack of liquidity in the estate."
Fandrich's trial attorney Anne Creasey confirmed that the property sale is at the halfway mark in terms of the due-diligence timeline, but she couldn't speak to what work the Grand Ronde had done to check on the site.
"We sell the property as-is, and if there are leases that are ongoing, the purchasers will have to take on those leases," she said.
Creasey said that the estate spent a "tremendous amount of money" on cleaning up the site along Highway 99E. She said that Fandrich "didn't have a strict standard for holding people up to their lease terms.
"It's really a lot of unknowns for my clients, but they've been very generous," Creasey said. "I can imagine it was a comfortable situation in terms of it being lax. Frank was a person with a big heart and very generous in terms of allowing accommodations for tenants. Change is hard."
Selvester confirmed that the estate has cleaned up a lot of trash along the riverfront property since Fandrich's death. Although the Confederated Tribes were in the middle of their due-diligence period on the property, Chip & Dale's Iron Works recently was able to obtain a six-month lease renewal, so the business will be able to stay at least through December.
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