Editorial: ‘Knife River’ property’s future matters – to all of us

Every community experiences ebbs and flows.

Certainly, that includes Sweet Home.

By “ebbs,” we’re talking about circumstances that impede growth and progress, which means more than just geographical or economic expansion. Community “growth” includes other ways things can improve for residents: convenience, activities, resources to meet everyday needs, culture, etc.

“Flows” are times of progress, when jobs are being created, when people engage in ways to improve community livability, when lasting gains take place.

We’re certainly seeing progress in Sweet Home. We have thriving businesses that weren’t here five or 10 years ago, providing local jobs. We have an engaged school district that is thinking outside the box to find ways to move ahead – its recent staff recruiting efforts, the reinstitution of the five-day school week, the two-for-one bond opportunity to make needed repairs to local schools, are examples.

There’s some good stuff happening.

But anyone who’s been paying attention will likely agree that the community needs to recover from some hits.

The Chamber of Commerce’s struggles have been a blow. There’s the ongoing struggles by the Sweet Home Economic Development Group to regain profitability with the Oregon Jamboree. Evidence of poverty and homelessness in Sweet Home is arguably more visible now than it has ever been in recent decades.

These are challenges that anyone engaged in community life can feel.

Another “ebb” in the past year-plus has been an exodus of community leaders, people committed to finding ways to improve Sweet Home’s economic prospects with strategies that were realistic, if not instant fixes. They’ve left for a variety of reasons, mostly work-related, but their departure has left a vacuum.

A poster child for Sweet Home’s recent struggles might be the former Knife River/Morse Bros. quarry property, the focus of our report on page 1 and above.

For various reasons, Sweet Home has been unable to step up to seize the golden opportunity that property represents, and now it appears that opportunity may vanish.

As noted in the article, the riverfront property, west of the north end of Clark Mill Road, came into Linn County’s possession on Dec. 31, 2010 as part of more than 400 acres owned by Western States Land Reliance Trust foreclosed for nonpayment of property taxes.

County commissioners offered the 220 acres to SHEDG, which it accepted in principle. SHEDG board members have worked diligently for the last several years on some of the issues involved – legalities, clean-up, plans for converting the property into a park and festival venue, plans for operation and maintenance of said park, etc.

The problem for SHEDG, however, is that its only paid staff members largely are focused on creating and operating the Oregon Jamboree. Everybody else is a volunteer, most of the board members working full-time or more in other fields.

Suffice to say, it hasn’t been enough to get the job done, though SHEDG’s efforts have certainly contributed to getting some important i’s dotted and t’s crossed.

The county, meanwhile, has invested somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000-plus in clean-up and other necessities to getting the property back to the point where it can be usable – or salable.

Late last fall, SHEDG approached the City of Sweet Home about assisting in the process of taking possession, as recounted in our story.

That was a month before new City Manager Ray Towry. Six months later, he leads a city staff that currently lacks two key department heads critical to the kind of decision-making and development necessary for the city to assume control of this property. Those would be Public Works (which would likely have a significant role in developing and maintaining the property), and Community Development (which would be tasked with planning and overseeing development).

It shouldn’t be surprising that the county’s patience is wearing thin, given the inertia that’s marked this process. The commissioners have established a 90-day deadline for Sweet Home to take action.

Whether Sweet Home, as a community, would be best served by the land’s use as a public recreation area or as private property with housing, industry or whatever else has been debated since the county takeover.

To some, it would be great to see events there every weekend during the summer, drawing crowds of campers and other participants. Proposals have included athletic fields that would provide Sweet Home with the ability to host large tournaments, a concert venue that could house the Oregon Jamboree and other entertainment, nature areas, trails, fishing facilities, etc.

There’s little doubt that, done well, such a park would draw folks to town, with the kind of impact that the visitors to the Oregon Jamboree provide one week a year – except, this could go on all summer and beyond.

Lebanon has made good use of its Cheadle Park, and this property could be far superior to Cheadle, which hosts the Strawberry Festival, the Star Spangled Fourth of July event, music festivals, Civil War re-enactment events, a pirate enthusiasts festival, races, company picnics and, this year, a solar eclipse event.

The potential for private use of this riverfront property in Sweet Home might even be greater, though easy public access to the river and the ponds on the property would be a huge benefit for people living in or visiting Sweet Home who want to get up close with nature, particularly with a fishing pole.

Put bluntly, this is an opportunity with loads of potential, but with costs.

Lacking key people in place to help move this along, City Manager Towry faces a big task, though there are certainly staff members at City Hall who have significant knowledge and experience with this property.

The county should maintain close communication; and if the city can demonstrate that, given adequate time, it can make this happen, commissioners should allow them that time.

But if the lack of progress continues, then it may be time for Plan B.

We appreciate the commissioners’ continued voiced concern for making this property benefit our community.

Despite the gains mentioned at the beginning of this editorial, our community still could use the prospective windfall the proper usage of this property represents.

The pressure’s on now. We’ve got 90 days.

There’s 220 prime acres that could be turned into a magnet, a money-maker for our community. Increased traffic means more jobs, more opportunities. But we need to step forward as a community and there are plenty of hurdles, all of which cost money.

We all know there are more citizens with vision in our community than simply those on the SHEDG board, in City Hall and the ones who have attended SHEDG presentations about this property.

The opportunities presented by this intended gift are, or should be, of great public interest to our community.

And that brings up one final point: While we recognize the necessity of communication with neighboring private property owners regarding the future of this property, this is a very public concern for Sweet Home – not just the people in City Hall.

That’s why officials should avoid meeting behind closed doors to discuss this issue. This is a big deal to all of us and the public, including the press, should be able to monitor these planning sessions – whether the letter of the law requires it or not.

Putting this property to good use could be a giant shot in the arm for Sweet Home, and the community needs to be encouraged to see this through.