Regional report: Valley city evolution

Regional report: Valley city evolution


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The Broadway Commerce Center, a project of Portland's Beam Development, opened in downtown Eugene last fall and has attracted a range of technology, design and architecture tenants.
// Photo by Sierra Breshears

The Willamette Valley is noted for its rich farmland, world-class wineries and charming covered bridges and byways. But if the region attracts plenty of accolades, the midsize cities themselves tend to fly under the radar. Portland generates its own gravitational forces, attracting and spinning out all that is green, tech-driven and hip. But the smaller I-5 corridor cities — Salem, Albany, Eugene and Springfield — don’t get a lot of buzz, and not just because of their size. Lacking a clearly defined “brand” — the rugged individualism of Bend, the tourist orientation of Cannon Beach — these midtier urban areas occupy a relatively amorphous role in the Oregon popular imagination and post-recession economy.

Salem is at once the seat of state government, a center for agriculture and a commuter destination for Portland residents, says John Wales, Salem’s urban development director. But as the Salem economy continues to founder, “We’re really trying to figure out what we do well and who we are,” he says.

In search of the corridor-city identity, we traveled down I-5, stopping in Salem, Albany, Eugene and Springfield. Snapshots of each town reveal different approaches to brand development, along with a few challenges and success stories. Salem is pursuing economic-development strategies that specifically represent the state’s second-largest city, Albany is evolving beyond its heavy-industry roots, and Eugene and Springfield are experiencing a long-awaited downtown renaissance. Collectively, these changes spotlight the evolving identity of a region often described in context of the surrounding landscape and not the individual character of its cities.