Now’s your chance to learn what’s up, get involved

A few years ago, I was standing in Times Square in New York City, there on a vacation trip.

As I looked around, at the skyscrapers and giant display screens, at the crowds of tourists and well-dressed business people hustling by, as the cacophony of car horns, street musicians, motors, construction equipment (they’re always building or repairing in NYC) roared around me, it hit me how this was really a world away from what I was used to, back in Sweet Home, Oregon.

It was actually kind of a fun place to visit.

Then this thought came: I live in the very place that most of these people want to go on vacation. I live in Yosemite, or Yellowstone – or something that’s not that different from those vacation hotspots.

This spot where we live is rapidly beginning to materialize into what many have long thought it could be: a destination for people eager to experience the outdoors and a source of better livelihood for our residents as a consequence.

Sweet Home is a happening plce right now and citizens who are curious about it all have an opportunity to learn more about a wide range of efforts and issues, ranging from the chances of reopening a Post Office in Cascadia to camping changes in the Quartzville area, at a public information expo to be held Monday, Feb. 25, at the Jim Riggs Community Center.

I suggest our readers make a point to be there.

This year is shaping up to be an important one in our community’s history. We’re seeing an era of local collaboration and purpose that hasn’t existed for quite a while, at least not to this extent.

This particular expo, organized at the instigation of County Commissioner Will Tucker and put together by city employees, will last from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Representatives of more than half a dozen government agencies and other interest groups will be present to discuss any or all of the following:

n South Santiam Community Forest – This is the focus of a high-powered collaboration effort, under the name “Oregon Solutions Team,” a group of representatives of a wide range of government agencies and interest group brought together by Gov. John Kitzhaber, who will gather every few weeks over the next six to eight months to effectively cut through red tape and other hindrances to the establishment of a community forest of public and private lands between Sweet Home and the Cascadia area.

Goals to be addressed include improved access to the South Santiam River, improved forest health and recreation, and creation of local forest-related jobs, including a riverside hiking/biking trail running from Sweet Home to the Santiam Wagon Road.

Another goal is to transfer Cascadia Cave, a site currently on land managed by Cascade Timber Consulting, to public ownership and management.

n Sweet Home All Lands Collaborative – This is an effort by federal and state forestry agencies, along with private landowners, to cooperate in the restoration and management of forests in the Sweet Home Ranger District region, particularly in the Cool Soda area.

It includes enhancing habitat for wildlife as well as finding ways to protect and enhance growing forests and use them responsibly in economically viable ways.

n Green Peter Quartzville Corridor Recreation – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for management of much of the Quartzville Corridor, and the Linn County Parks and Recreation Department are collaborating to create new and improved camping facilities around Green Peter Lake, as the Corps has decided to ban “dispersed camping” that has long been popular along Quartzville Road due to concerns about campers’ impact on natural resources, public and employee safety and littering.

n Other county Parks and Recreation facilities – River Bend Campground is the latest addition to the county recreational facilities, but there’s an even more important one to Sweet Home on the horizon: the park proposed to occupy a large portion of the former Western States Reliance Trust property managed by Dan Desler, which extends from behind McDonald’s and Clark Mill Road on the south to the South Santiam River on the north. The proposed county park would include a concert venue and many other recreational features, including a number of sizeable ponds.

n Road and highway projects and strategies – The Oregon Department of Transportation is considering improvements along Highway 20, including possible walking and biking paths or lanes, and other upgrades that would enhance tourist traffic in the area. Improvements to Quartzville Road are also on the drawing board.

n Sweet Home Trails efforts – This group of volunteers interested in local trail development has already been active in the maintenance of the South Hills Trail that follows the old Dollar Railroad line along the south edge of town, and the Foster Lake Trail. More plans are in the works.

n Sweet Home Community Parks Master Planning – This one is pretty self-explanatory. Interested in parks improvements? This is a good place to let your voice be heard.

So, is there anything in that list that interests you as a Sweet Home resident? The scope here is massive, but it’s not a pipe dream – any more. These things are happening and this forum is a chance to learn more about them and how they will affect you and how you can contribute.

I’ve been at The New Era nearly eight years, so I don’t have the benefit of lengthy local experience when I look at what’s happening now.

However, past editions of this newspaper contain plenty of reports of multiple efforts to make things better – beautification initiatives, economic revitalization initiatives, program launches, formation of groups dedicated to various improvements, etc.

Most, apparently, did not last long, doomed by lack of energy or personnel or other circumstances.

But here we are, 20-some years past the fateful day when a small feathered creature called the spotted owl triggered the shutdown of a vast portion of Sweet Home’s economic base. In the last five years we’ve seen ongoing efforts to improve things that have stayed consistent, that have not died.

Sweet Home Beautification committee members, led by Alice Grovom and Phyllis Osborn-Smith, have steadily improved the town’s appearance.

The Sweet Home Active Revitalization Effort (SHARE) gave some real legs to the true purpose for the existence of Sweet Home Economic Development Group (SHEDG), which has resulted in the employment of a capable economic development director in the person of Brian Hoffman. Buildings have been painted, signs have been upgraded, businesses have been counseled, tourism initiatives have been pursued.

Things have happened.

The key point to remember in all of this is that progress has been steady, if not rapid. That’s OK. Lasting change takes time. It requires changes in perspective. It requires establishment of goals. It requires steady commitment, a refusal to back down when circumstances don’t line up perfectly. It requires a willingness to work together to achieve those goals.

Sweet Home’s progress has been noted. So has our potential.

Though a lot of us are oblivious to it because we are used to it, as I noted at the beginning of this column, we live in a spectacular area that is immensely attractive to people who look at asphalt and concrete and their neighbors’ fences all year.

We have lakes, rivers, beautiful forests and mountains, hiking, biking, equestrian trails, a wide range of camping facilities, and much more right outside town. Those are just the big ones. We also have mushrooms, minerals, wildlife, fish – need I go on?

If these resources are developed, Sweet Home’s economy cannot help but improve. There would be a need for businesses to supply goods and services to visitors, which means jobs for local folks. There would be a need for lodging and restaurants. In short – and I’m not saying anything new here – a robust tourism industry would provide us a more varied economic base than just timber.

Then there’s the community forest vision, or what some proponents prefer to call “a working forest,” which includes economic components as well – biomass, special forest projects, forest industry – what Sweet Home District Ranger Cindy Glick has called “a multiplicity of outputs.” We also have a newly rebuilt railroad to haul those forest products out, once they’re developed.

Does any of this interest you? Stop by at the Community Center Monday evening and learn more.