Is there ever a good time to get the news that 29 jobs will leave your community, taking with them an important corporate citizen? If you are one of the 29 workers at the Boise Cascade veneer mill in Independence, getting the word during the holidays that the mill would shut down in late January made it just that much harder.
If you are the town’s mayor, you take in the news and feel for those families, like so many timber families before them. Then you take a deep breath, like so many small-town mayors before you, and move on.
On a cold December morning, just a few days after Boise announced the mill closure, I drove into Independence while it was still dark and few of its 7,700 souls were out. The beautiful old buildings lining Main Street welcomed me with their holiday lights and Mayor John McArdle and City Manager Greg Ellis welcomed me with a warm office and offer of coffee.
The town knows the value of open arms.
“I hate to see it happen,” the ebullient, energetic McArdle says of the mill closing, “but there is opportunity in the land.” As mayor, McArdle makes it his calling to see opportunity wherever he can. Boise eventually will sell the 48-acre site, and while they mourn losing Boise, McArdle and Ellis are already thinking ahead. It’s a valuable industrial site. They will make something happen, because that’s what they do.
“When you lose a Boise Cascade, it’s a big deal,” says Ellis, whose quietness and compactness belie his logger background and play nicely with the bear-like mayor’s buoyancy. “But we need to make the best of it,” McArdle, mayor for eight years, emphatically adds. There is no value in looking back. To these two, the rear-view mirror is not as important as the front windshield.
Independence, just southwest of Salem, has worked hard to broaden beyond its traditional roots. Timber jobs may be drying up, but they point to Medallion Cabinetry, with a workforce of 400 and rumors of expansion, and Marquis Spas, which is employee-owned and based in town, as what’s helping fill the gap.
There’s also an eight-screen movie complex opening in mid-March and a pizza place under construction. The town has wired itself with high-speed broadband, upgraded its downtown infrastructure, opened a new $1.8 million public library, and in 2005, christened its Riverview Park amphitheater, the community’s “living room” that sprawls along the shore of the Willamette River.
The civic vision? “We are a full-service community,” McArdle says passionately. “Not a bedroom community to Salem.” A movie theater — or a library or an amphitheater — gives kids something to do, keeps the popcorn money local, gives everyone another reason to stay in town.
Denice Scott, who owns Andy’s Café with her husband, eagerly sat and chatted with me over a BLT (righteously heavy on the B). For the 30 years it has been her home, she has seen Independence change dramatically for the better and today, “Business is good.” Before I have a chance to formally introduce myself, she “gives all the credit in the world to Greg and John.” Denice and Andy have raised their two children here, including a Marine son. While she also is very sorry for the families that lost their jobs, she, too, has her eyes on the road ahead and she’s confident something good will rise out of the ashes of Boise Cascade, which has operated the facility for 43 years.
So am I. Like so many rural Oregon towns, Independence is full of good people who have to work just that much harder to make their community thrive. The considerable commitment and energy of people such as Denice, John and Greg make me believe that, come this time next year, a phoenix will be spotted over at the old mill site.
— Robin Doussard