Regional report: Valley city evolution

Regional report: Valley city evolution

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Salem: A city in search of itself

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Above: James Kohn is co-owner of Wandering Aengus Ciderworks, one of a growing number of small, value-added food and beverage processors springing up in the Salem area. 
Below: Salem architect Alan Costic (left) and property owner Eric Kittleson are among a group of downtown business leaders proposing an ambitious garden-based streetscape project for the central core. The project is intended to help revitalize downtown and make the city a destination.
//Photos by Eric Näslund
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In the basement of one of Salem’s historic buildings, Carole Smith, a downtown property owner, is talking about one of the main problems facing Oregon’s second-largest city. “We’re always saying: ‘Portland does this, Portland does that.’ We need to come up with our own solutions.”

Forty miles from PDX, Salem suffers a bit from low self-esteem and dependency issues, especially where its bigger, brasher neighbor to the north is concerned. But in a city where the economy has yet to improve — the unemployment rate is 9.6% — there are signs Salem is ready to carve out its own identity, one based on the city’s unique assets. Two very different initiatives — a city loan program that so far has funded value-added food businesses and an ambitious streetscape plan — are indicative of this approach.

Home to NORPAC Foods, Truitt Brothers and other food-processing giants, Salem is now supporting smaller specialty food and beverage companies that capitalize on local, sustainable food trends. A case in point is the Fairview Urban Renewal Area small-business pilot program, an initiative that offers loans to existing manufacturers in need of capital to grow, then forgives up to 70% of the loan in exchange for job creation. So far, the program has awarded loans to three food and beverage companies, says Wales, the city’s urban development director.

“Our goal is to grow the next Kettle Chips,” he says, referring to the Salem-born company, now owned by Diamond Foods. One potential candidate is Wandering Aengus Ciderworks. The artisan cider company grossed $500,000 in 2011; that figure is expected to exceed $1 million in 2012, says marketing director and co-owner James Kohn. For his part, Kohn would like to see Salem convert some of the surrounding grass-seed farms to specialty apple orchards. “We’re trying to sustain growth in locally sourced products,” he says.

Across town, business owners in the central core are working on another Salem-sourced project, a streetscape plan built around the vision of Elizabeth Lord and Edith Schryver, renowned garden designers who lived in Salem in the early 1900s. Linking Riverfront Park to the capitol, the gardenscape would put a local stamp on the downtown revitalization trend, says Eric Kittleson, president of the board of the Downtown Partnership. By drawing tourists who visit the Oregon Garden in Silverton, and helping Salem Hospital and Willamette University attract high-caliber employees, the landscaped downtown would also “be a huge driver for the Salem economy,” says Smith. Supporters hope to tap urban-renewal funds for the project, says Kittleson.

So far, more traditional downtown drivers have stalled. The Rivers, a high-end condo building, has sold only a few units; the long-anticipated mixed-use redevelopment of the old Boise Cascade mill is on hold. “We don’t have much to comment on at this time,” says Jason Tokarski, VP of Mountain West Investment, which purchased the site in 2007.

The city has other Salem-branded projects in the works, including putting the finishing touches on a unique 100-acre wetland in the 650-acre Mill Creek Corporate Center, the largest industrial site on the I-5 corridor between Sacramento and Canada, according to Wales. As the city moves ahead with these and other strategies, business leaders are trying to keep one guiding principle in mind. “We shouldn’t be advertising we’re close to Portland,” says Ray Burstedt, president of SEDCOR, a local economic development nonprofit. “We need to focus on who we are.”