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Vernonia stakes future on new school

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Articles - October 2011
Thursday, September 22, 2011

Beyond the school

As vital as a new school is and as innovative as the green economy ideas are, they alone cannot resolve the challenges to Vernonia’s recovery: a commuter workforce, a critical shortage of light industrial and commercial land, a shrinking tax base, inadequate broadband access, costly water rates, a wastewater system that will cost $9 million to repair — issues that can be sure-fire business killers.

Vernonia has small-town charm and townspeople say it's a safe place to raise children. Downtown businesses hang on despite the bruising economy that has claimed about nine shops.
// Photos by Justin Tunis

“The No. 1 issue was to get the school built for sheer survival’s sake,” says businessman Brad Curtis. “We’re all very proud. But you are really just buying time with the school.”

Recent political turmoil also has delayed traction on recovery efforts. Over the summer, voters recalled three of the five city councilors who had fired interim city administrator Bill Haack because he had helped with the investigation of police Sgt. Michael Kay, who eventually was let go for misconduct. Vernonia has had about seven city managers in eight years.

“The city has stopped,” says Randy Parrow, a city councilor and co-owner of the Sentry supermarket, the sole grocery in town. “We’ve spent six months fighting among ourselves instead of taking care of business,” says publisher Scott Laird. “There’s not a lot happening on economic recovery. People are just trying to keep their head above water.” (In early September, a reconstituted council rehired Haack as city administrator.)

Between the flood and the recession, about nine shops have closed in the small, sagging downtown, including a nursery, several restaurants, a bike rental shop and a hair salon. Dan Brown, the flood recovery manager, estimates that 10% to 20% of the homes slated for flood help are being lost to foreclosures, including eight homes in just three blocks on A Street. About 42 homes have been or are slated to be demolished.

“Vernonia has been through an awful lot and it shows,” says Sen. Betsy Johnson.

Lack of funding has stalled the Rose Avenue Project, a $3 million social service “hub” to house the nonprofit health clinic, senior center and food bank that were wiped out in the flood. Proposed along with the 25,000-square-foot hub is a biomass boiler that would use local biomass to heat the hub and provide energy for nearby buildings, a project that has received federal seed money.

Perhaps most critically, the city lost its core business land when new FEMA maps were redrawn after the flood; 177 acres of current school and business acreage will be rezoned to parkland. The future plan for those acres includes replacing Spencer Park, where the new school is sited, and one day building other amenities, such as biking, hiking and wildlife viewing areas.

This leaves no zoning that allows for a business park within the city limits. In the short term, the city hopes to rezone 12 acres of land above the new school for green industrial, which could take up to two years. The city is trying to find and acquire land for light industrial and commercial use, but expanding its growth boundary is an arduous chess game that could take many more years to complete. “Right now, if a business wanted to come in there’s no place for them,” says Sharon Bernal, a local realtor and chair of the economic development committee.

This deeply hurts the town’s ability to attract businesses, and keep what it has. Brad Curtis started Photo Solutions in 1989, a microlithography and glass-machining company with 10 employees. Curtis, who is also on the economic development committee, has lived in Vernonia for 22 years and wonders if he can hang on.

He must move his business out of the flood plain, but there is no light industrial site to build on, and no suitable place to lease. “So do we figure out a way to hang tight and stay here and forego growth,” he asks, “or do we move into Washington County? It’s hard to make a business case to stay in this town right now.”


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