Losing even 10 local jobs would be a blow to a town where it’s estimated that as many as 90% of its working residents leave each day to make the 45-minute drive for jobs in Beaverton, Hillsboro or Portland, dropping their shopping dollars in those cities instead of in Vernonia. “In reality, we are a bedroom community,” says Heidi Brown of Grey Dawn Gallery, which opened in 2000; Heidi and Dan’s two children are fourth-generation Vernonians. “[Commuters] get tired of the drive and move back out. And we’re not a cheap place to live.”
Above: Every summer the town creates an old-fashioned swimming hole by damming up Rock Creek, which runs through the center of town.
Below: (Left to right) Keaton Simmons and brothers Bryce and Adrian Archer at the swimming hole this summer.
// Photos by Justin Tunis
“When I look at [the future] right now, I don’t see how people can ‘evacuate’ the town every day if gas is $4 to $5 a gallon,” says Curtis, who transferred his eighth-grader to a Beaverton school after the flood. “The school might attract a few people, but you’ve got to supply jobs out here.”
One bit of progress is the recently approved rezoning of 27 acres of land owned by Tim and Michelle Bero from forest to light industrial; the land is adjacent to the runway at Vernonia Municipal Airport, outside the city’s growth boundary.
Tim Bero, a plainspoken businessman who is on the economic development committee, estimates he spent a quarter of a million dollars to get his property rezoned after a protracted battle. He wants to attract companies from Vernonia along with new industries to the airport. His goal is to create at least 30 jobs and he’s giving it five years, even though “my wife is fed up.” The Beros own Technetwork and TNW Firearms, a gun reproduction business with $2 million in revenue. They moved to Vernonia 20 years ago after Bero closed his Silicon Valley robotics company. They also transferred their children out of the school district.
But Bero still has fight in him despite the costly rezoning fight, and asks the ubiquitous question: “We are living in the carcass of what the town was supposed to be. So what do we do to fix that?”
Bero is betting on bringing in business because he doesn’t believe the answer is tourism: “The weather sucks.” Randy Parrow disagrees: “Tourism is all we have to offer.” Scott Laird sees diversity as the key: “Little things make a big difference in a small town. So economic recovery will be small things that happen in small ways.”
“A lot of our internal unrest is fear,” says Dan Brown, pointing out that “we can’t even afford to run the street sweeper, and we’re down to two police officers.”
“The one thing that everyone agrees on is the school,” he says. “This school is a great beacon of hope.”