Livability team: Sweet Home ‘unique,’ with notable collaboration

Scott Swanson

Three representatives of the Livability Initiative, who toured Sweet Home Dec. 15-18 to assess and help improve local living conditions, found the community “unique,” with a strong spirit of collaboration, they said.

The three, Katie Allen and Kendra Briechle of the Conservation Leadership Network, and Gye Aung of the Federal Highway Administration, visited to kick off a two-year Livability Initiative effort led by their agencies to help Sweet Home, as a “gateway community” to the Willamette National Forest. Their goal is to assess and come up with strategies to improve Sweet Home’s livability in such areas as transportation, housing, health, jobs and the local economy.

U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Cindy Glick, who was one of the instigators behind the application for the Livability Initiative, said the visit “is a way for us to have some people who’ve done this kind of work across the United States come and tell us how to apply for grants, and give us tools to decide what want to do and how to do it.”

Sweet Home was identified as a participant in the program last July, along with three other communities – Calhoun Falls, S.C., a gateway community to Lake Russell; Grand Lake, Colo., which borders Rocky Mountain National Park; and Saginaw, Mich., located near Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.

The three spent four days touring the city, Green Peter and Quartzville Creek areas and River Bend campground, and talking with local citizens including educators, law enforcement personnel, healthcare representatives, transportation officials, housing providers, high school students, senior citizens and various personnel who work in forestry and recreation.

“We got to meet a lot of stakeholders in the area,” said Allen, who is based in Shepherdstown, W.V.

“There’s a lot of uniqueness to the town, though it does share some of those issues that gateway communities have, especially that it’s a resource-based economy.”

Glick and other organizers said the goal was to give the three a full view of Sweet Home – its strengths and weaknesses.

“We wanted to get them exposed to what Sweet Home’s all about,” she said.

The itinerary for the visitors included dinner with participants of the Manna free meals program at the United Methodist Church.

“That was very eye-opening,” Allen said. “They were packed. People were sharing great stories. When I asked people what they think about Sweet Home, it was very positive. They love living here.”

The visitors and organizers of the tour all said the group that stood out the most were members of the high school Leadership Class, with whom they ate lunch one day, which, Allen said, was “one of the highlights of the trip.”

“We just asked them what they thought livability was. They were very articulate in expressing how they felt.”

The high school students pointed out the attractions of Sisters that Sweet Home is lacking, and suggested that the community needs recreation-based attractions, such as a high-ropes course.

“They voiced some of the things we were thinking in terms of supporting the downtown, providing a place where they can hang out,” Allen said, adding that they learned from the students about “Poverty Beach,” the teenagers’ name for the southwest shore of Foster Lake where they recreate in the summer time.

She said the visitors were impressed by the cooperative spirit they found in Sweet Home.

“There’s a lot of support from the Forest Service for the town,” she said. “Knowing there is a partnership there is really a first step to building this. Through our meetings, everybody was really engaged, ready to collaborate. There seems to be great momentum. It’s all building toward something they can put towards action.”

Glick said the three visitors expressed appreciation for the planning and effort that went into their visit on the local end.

“They said it was one of their best field visits to a site that they had done – so thorough, so complete, very well organized. We had a complete spectrum of people they wanted to talk to. They thought it was a top-notch job.”

She noted that the visit was organized by a team of local officials and active citizens including John Meier and Stefanie Gatchell of the U.S. Forest Service, Portland State University graduate student Laura Goodrich who is interning with the City of Sweet Home, County Commissioner Will Tucker, City Manager Craig Martin and JoAnn McQueary, representing the Sweet Home Economic Development Group.

Glick said she was involved in a similar program, conducted by the Ford Foundation, when she worked in Sisters and that effort resulted in, among other things, the establishment of a trails system in that area.

“That one wasn’t as in-depth,” she said, noting that direct invitations were extended to specific representatives of interest areas that will be covered by the Livability Initiative, rather than simply holding hearings or inviting those interested to speak with the visitors. “We were more deliberate here in Sweet Home than my experience over in Sisters,” she said.

The Initiative team’s next step is to prepare a report that will include recommendations for Sweet Home, which will be followed by community workshops in late summer or fall.

Martin said the city’s Strategic Plan, which will be released in the next few weeks in a final draft form, contains much information that will be helpful for the Livability team.

“They’re well aware of that (Strategic Plan preparation) effort and they have copies of the preliminary draft,” he said. “The quality of life and livability components identified through that process are in consideration as the Livability folks make their assessment. Hopefully, they will be successful in creating some of these economic, tourism and recreation, and alternative forest product-type opportunities that we’re looking at.”

Martin promised that the community will have “good notice” when the Livability report is available.

Glick said local residents need to “think about what they love about Sweet Home, what they really want to maintain the integrity of, and what they want to improve upon.”

When the workshops take place later in the year, “they need to bring those ideas to the forum and work with their neighbors and friends and think what we can do as a community to move Sweet Home forward, where Sweet Home wants to go.

“We just want to create more jobs and maintain what everyone loves about this community.”