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Vernonia stakes future on new school

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Articles - October 2011
Thursday, September 22, 2011

A step forward

Weary town leaders up to their elbows in the muck of recovery find it hard to see the future, but those a few steps back imagine it clearly.

“I can see this town being like Hood River,” says Tom Kelly.

“Things in Astoria are good,” says Betsy Johnson. “The same possibility is there for Vernonia.”

Other rural Oregon towns have dug themselves out of deep holes by building on their ready-made or created assets: Cannon Beach and its art scene; Baker City and its mass of beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings; Hood River and its recreational amenities and high-tech jobs; The Dalles and its success in business development and remaking its downtown; and Astoria, which turned itself from a gritty, rundown former logging and fishing town into a place where Microsoft executives snap up Victorians and you can buy a cup of hand-roasted organic coffee to go with your artisan sandwich. Why not a green school and green economy as a shovel?

Sharon Bernal, part of a longtime timber family and chair of the economic planning committee.
// Photo by Justin Tunis

“I believe there is a huge draw of people who want to go green,” says Sharon Bernal, the economic development chair. “What I envision is a lot of small, in-home business owners who are going to want their children in this school. Also, the [rural sustainability] center is huge. When you put those two things together, I think we can see a lot of people who have their kids in private schools in the city moving to this community.”

The story of the little town that could is compelling, and many are pulling for it.

“When you think of it as a needful community, it is hard not to think of all the other needs,” says Alissa Keny-Guyer of Oregon Solutions, which will remain through the fundraising phase of the Vernonia project, a first for the organization. “But if you think of Vernonia as a transformational community, it presents a lot of different models for how rural Oregon can survive in the 21st century.”

To get there, fundraisers will face foundations that usually don’t invest in brick and mortar, and a tough economy as they search for the remaining $8 million needed for the school; that doesn’t include the approximately $3 million it will take to build a new football stadium and other athletic fields. “I can’t give you a roadmap to where every dime will come from,” Johnson says, “but it’s there and we’re going to go find it.”

“And there are a lot of people who aren’t aware that this hasn’t been fixed yet,” says Eric Friedenwald-Fishman, president of the Metropolitan Group, which is advising the fundraising. “Four years is a long time.”

As Dan Brown said, it’s a long time to be patient. So many things are unknowable and uncertain about the town’s future, and about how a school might be its economic catalyst. The green economy in Oregon and the nation is wobbly. Like other communities that have faced this juncture, there’s a fair amount of making it up as you go along. Magical thinking is not uncommon.

But one thing is certain.

Next September, a new green K-12 school will open, running on local biomass, partnering with universities and focused on studies relevant to its rural students, students who will have honest-to-god lockers, not just ones painted on walls. It can pour buckets and principal Aaron Miller will not have to empty them. Businessman Brad Curtis might even bring back his son to be part of the first high school graduating class.

On that day next September, the community will step forward. A community where residents in struggling rural towns like Oakridge or Burns might one day look to and say, “I can see this town being like Vernonia.”

Robin Doussard is the editor of Oregon Business. Contact: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


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