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Pandemic, calls for racial justice, regional wildfires and elections were biggest stories of 2020

PMG FILE PHOTO - Wilsonville restaurants, like Vanguard Brewing, had to adjust to providing mostly takeout and delivery orders in 2020.

It may take many moons before the remnants of 2020 will be discarded into the dustbin of history.

The COVID-19 pandemic, the most devastating and far-reaching disease-spreading event in a century, cut the lives of thousands short and dramatically altered nearly everyone else's. Among many examples, it forced people to interact with friends mostly via video technology, strained local businesses, put employees out of work, made parenting, teaching and learning all the more challenging and led governments at all levels to respond to skyrocketing needs despite receding revenue streams. Adding in protests for racial equality, violent wildfires and consequential elections and the historical weight of 2020, in Wilsonville and beyond, exceeded many of its predecessors.

As 2021 begins to take shape, the Spokesman decided to look back at some of the most notable stories of 2020.

Pandemic impacts

As one of the biggest stories of the last half century globally, the COVID-19 pandemic is clearly the top Wilsonville story in 2020. According to a recent Oregon Health Authority report, Wilsonville's 97070 zip code had 559 reported COVID-19 cases out of a population of just over 20,000 residents. And the pandemic fostered considerable death, pain and fear for the local and broader community.

Meanwhile, restaurants were abruptly forced to close indoor facilities and switch to takeout orders in March. Restaurant regulations fluctuated throughout the year but these businesses had to rely mostly on takeout orders heading into the winter. And businesses more broadly had to adopt much more stringent cleaning and safety requirements while significantly limiting capacity.

Some who spoke to the Spokesman feared they would have to shutter their business permanently while others reported a huge dip in sales from previous years. And Wilsonville lost two of its most popular activity centers due to the pandemic: Wilsonville Lanes and World of Speed. Some local businesses, like OrePac Building Products and Swire Coca-Cola, even had COVID-19 outbreaks within their facilities.

Not to mention, with local schools switching to online learning, local parents had to juggle child care and work responsibilities simultaneously. Teachers had to adapt to a new, less interactive method of teaching and students had to go without seeing their friends every day and learn without easily being able to call on their teacher for help.

At local senior living facilities, residents were isolated from friends and family and some had to deal with stresses associated with a few local facilities like The Springs at Wilsonville and Marquis Wilsonville reporting COVID-19 cases. The facilities themselves braved extra costs associated with buying increasingly expensive protective equipment.

COURTESY PHOTO - Christopher Shotola-Hardt spent the last few months of a long career as a Wilsonville High School art teacher teaching students from home.

Governments try to help

With local businesses languishing and an unemployment rate ballooning, governments at all levels made some effort to help.

There was a federal relief package that offered $1,200 to Americans, increased unemployment payments and a paycheck protection program for small businesses. The state of Oregon also approved and later extended an eviction moratorium to prevent renters from being forced out by landlords. Some business owners lamented throughout the year how long it took to collect their relief payment while others thought the government should provide more relief.

At the Wilsonville government level, the city initially dolled out 121 grants worth between $1,000 and $4,000 to businesses with 20 or fewer employees, as well as $10,000 grants to three local hotels. Recently, it provided $50,000 worth of grants to help restaurants brave what could be a very difficult winter.

Wilsonville city councilors, however, generally indicated these grants would not be enough to keep businesses afloat. Whether or not businesses can persevere through this time of lower economic activity remains to be seen.

Wilsonville residents cope, chip in to help

Throughout the pandemic, Wilsonville residents did their best to help make a difference during trying times.

The local Wilsonville High School robotics team produced hundreds of face shields for essential workers nationwide as well as local teachers, police officers and others using 3-D printing technology. Also with 3-D printing, the Martin family made ear savers to make life a little more comfortable for workers risking their lives to treat those with COVID-19.

Others simply adapted to new constraints.

There were a few drive-thru birthday parties and many local events, such as school plays, church services and the popular storytime program at the Wilsonville Public Library, that either transformed into drive-thru occasions or transitioned online. And one Villebois resident took socially-distanced front porch photos of locals to memorialize the odd circumstances. The Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce and Wilsonville-Boones Ferry Historical Society hoped to introduce a car parade but determined that would not meet state guidelines and hosted an online Fourth of July event instead. Meanwhile, popular mainstays like the Rotary Club of Wilsonville's concert series, the Wilsonville Festival of the Arts and the Wilsonville Brewfest did not take place this year. Wilsonville High School sports also stopped entirely in March, just as the Wildcat boys and girls basketball teams neared state title bids.

On a more prosaic level, some Wilsonville residents reported enjoying having more time to spend with their kids and developing new hobbies like home improvement and reading. Zoom also became the operative technology for communicating with the outside world and some residents reported that they had actually connected more with their loved ones during the pandemic than beforehand. There were also some who did not consistently follow social distancing guidelines, as evidenced by a large birthday party in Villebois that was brought up at a City Council meeting.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Pastor Jake Schwein adjusts a hairlight on Pastor Jen McCourt before recording a virtual church service at Grace Chapel in the spring.

Wilsonville voters choose city direction

The pandemic may have overshadowed what was an exceedingly consequential year in Wilsonville politics.

After petitioner Doris Wehler gathered enough signatures at the beginning of 2020 to put a measure to impose term limits on Wilsonville councilors on May ballots, voters resoundingly approved the measure by a margin of 65% to 35%. This meant that Mayor Tim Knapp could not run for reelection in 2020, marking the end of a 12-year run as mayor and 17-year run on the council. It also meant that Charlotte Lehan, the longest serving councilor in city history, can't run for reelection in 2022 and that councilors will not be able to serve for three terms in a 20-year period regardless of if they are elected mayor during that time.

Knapp and Lehan had a reason to smile later last year though, as their preferred mayoral candidate Julie Fitzgerald won decisively over Councilor Ben West, who Knapp recently filed an electioneering complaint against. Meanwhile, incumbent councilors Kristin Akervall and Joann Linville, who Knapp also endorsed, won reelection over challengers John Budiao and Imran Haider. These results took place despite the fact that West garnered an unprecedented level of financial support for a Wilsonville election, much of which came from business interests unhappy with the city's litigation against Aurora Airport planning.

This means that the current council direction on issues like housing density and Aurora Airport growth will likely continue into 2021 and beyond. But, due to term limits, increased council turnover in the coming decades is a possibility.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Hundreds marched across Wilsonville in June to protest police brutality.

Community calls for police reform, racial equity

Much of American society felt disgust and outrage when they heard about Black individuals like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor being slain by police. A video of an officer pressing his knee against Floyd, leading to his death, evoked an especially visceral response.

Locally, this led to a June protest in Wilsonville where hundreds of people marched around the community chanting phrases like "No Justice. No Peace. No Racist Police." Some shared their stories of racial injustice and the group laid on the ground in front of City Hall and elected officials for the length of time Floyd's neck was crushed. Villebois residents also hosted multiple events for residents to gather to talk about race.

This nationwide phenomenon also led the city to try to find ways to hear from underrepresented groups in the Wilsonville community, including recently hosting a listening session where minority community members could tell elected officials about their experiences living in town and attempting to incorporate the Latinx community into arts and culture planning efforts.

Amid the outcry, some people hoped the city would facilitate a task force that would assess police complaints. At a recent work session, City Manager Bryan Cosgrove said a more general task force focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion issues would be created and that a police oversight group could be formed as an outgrowth of that in the future.

The West-Linn Wilsonville School District also considered whether to retain its school resource officer program, which some have said exacerbates the "school-to-prison pipeline," but decided against it.

Wildfires decimate region

The September wildfires that burned over one million acres statewide did not make their way to the Wilsonville community.

However, the fires caused Wilsonville and the greater Portland area to have some of the worst air quality in the world for a few days. Adults in custody at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility reported hazardous smoke wafting into their cells and the Oregon Department of Corrections decided to transfer the entire population to Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras temporarily.

Meanwhile, Wilsonville hotels, which were unusually vacant due to the COVID-19 pandemic, reported a large uptick in customers following the wildfires. Some displaced people also temporarily stayed in their cars or RVs in Wilsonville parking lots such as the one at Fry's Electronics, and Frog Pond Farm housed displaced people as well as dozens of displaced animals.

After a week or so, the contaminated air dispersed and air quality levels returned to normal. However, The Oregonian recently reported that over 1,000 people were still displaced in late December.

COURTESY PHOTO - Regional wildfires turned the sky orange in Charbonneau in September.

City passes affordable housing plan

Despite the fact that the Wilsonville community has a higher proportion of multifamily housing than many other nearby communities, recent reports have indicated that the average home in Wilsonville is far out of the financial reach of most families. The city is hoping to fix this affordability gap and the first step toward doing so was passing its Equitable Housing Strategic Plan. The plan does not provide a clear blueprint for addressing the issue but does detail many options the council could consider moving forward such as: providing tax abatements for the development of affordable housing, utilizing urban renewal (collecting taxes associated with increased property values in an area and using it for public projects), partnering with the nonprofit sector, developing the Wilsonville Transit Center to include buildings with affordable housing and altering systems development charges (one-time charges to developers to pay for extra strain on public infrastructure) to incentivize affordable housing. The city will also need to comply with landmark housing legislation that will prevent any neighborhood in Wilsonville from allowing only single-family homes. Further action to bring the vision to a reality will likely be undertaken by the upcoming City Council.

Parks bond sputters

Members of the Wilsonville community hoping for large-scale projects to improve parks and recreation facilities in town will have to wait.

Due to COVID-19 financial impacts, the city decided to halt its process for forwarding a parks bond measure to voters. The task force designed to facilitate what would go in the bond provided a recommendation to the council that included non-motorized boat facilities at Boones Ferry Park and Memorial Park, new courts at Memorial Park and a skatepark in Town Center, among other projects. If approved, the bond would have raised property taxes. However, shortly after the task force approved the recommendation, the pandemic's drastic effects in Oregon came to the fore.

Wilsonville Parks and Recreation Director Mike McCarty has said that bond measures are the only practical way to fund expensive parks projects and that the department is not able to budget much of the bond package based on current revenues. However, he said smaller projects within the bond like court resurfacing and improving Wilsonville Community Center could be funded.

McCarty hoped that in a year or two the parks department could restart the bond process from where they left off but wasn't sure if that would happen.

Aurora Airport litigation

In 2020, Wilsonville's effort to contest Aurora Airport planning seemed to face a setback — though the city may have got what it wanted anyway.

City Council gave the greenlight to the legal department to appeal an Oregon Aviation Board decision that effectively validated the 2012 airport master plan update to the Land Use Board of Appeals and to file an appeal with Clackamas County Circuit Court (which was put on hold) in 2019. Then, in December, LUBA dismissed Wilsonville's and other entities' appeal, stating that it did not have jurisdiction over the decision and that the plan had been formally adopted by Marion County, which City Attorney Barbara Jacobson said was not the case. The city decided to appeal the LUBA decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals shortly after.

The city and other relevant parties have said that a runway extension was unlawfully added to the master plan update after the public input portion of the master planning process had concluded, and they are wary that the extension could lead to increased flights into the airport, agricultural encroachment, traffic and noise over the Charbonneau community. Despite the apparent defeat at LUBA, the Federal Aviation Administration recently told the Oregon Department of Aviation that it must complete a new master plan update before extending the runway.

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