Build it back better
Like other small towns across Oregon — across America — Vernonia struggles with higher unemployment and lower wages than urban areas, scarce capital, aging infrastructure, and the exodus of its youth. These problems have only deepened in the past several years with the recession and its lingering fallout. “We have to reinvent ourselves,” says Scott Laird, editor and publisher of Vernonia’s Voice, “because what we have isn’t working.”
School superintendent Ken Cox in the gym. High school and middle school students have been in temporary classrooms since 2007. "It didn't make sense to rebuild where we were," says Cox.
// Photos by Justin Tunis
But the town does have a Mayberry-esque charm; townspeople say it’s a safe place to raise kids; there’s freedom to roam. Situated in the Upper Nehalem Valley in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range, it possesses exceptional natural beauty, and amenities such as the 21-mile Banks-Vernonia state trail built over an abandoned railroad, Stub Stewart state park and a mountain bike skills park next to Vernonia Lake. Tenacious, dedicated people make this their home.
Tony Hyde was in Portland in 2007 when the rains began and couldn’t get back to Vernonia to his family or his flooded home. He remembers talking to then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski, trying to think beyond just the raw recovery that would soon face the town, including having to move half of its homes, its schools and other public buildings outside the flood-risk area in the middle of town.
“Kulongoski asked me, ‘What does Vernonia look like in 20 years?’” Hyde remembers. That was a critical question. Vernonia once was a thriving timber town with more than 500 mill jobs until it was nearly wiped out in 1957 when the Oregon-American Lumber Company shuttered operations, its supply of big trees exhausted. Over the decades since, the town has fought to regain its footing, but never again attracted another anchor business.
The town had no chance without its schools. In 2008, Kulongoski designated rebuilding Vernonia’s schools an Oregon Solutions project, naming Hyde and Portland businessman Tom Kelly as co-chairs. Oregon Solutions, housed at Portland State University, is designed to cut red tape and build effective collaborations to tackle the state’s deepest problems.
The ambition was to not just rebuild the schools, but “build them back better,” hook them to the sustainability sizzle in the state and position them as part of the growing green economy. Sustainability would be the true north of the town’s reinvention. How could a former timber town find its way back through those same woods? If part of the answer was a green school that could help grow a local green economy, it might provide a beacon to other rural Oregon communities with aging schools and decimated economies. “We are not just putting a school back together,” says Hyde. “It’s about the future.”