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Regional report: Valley city evolution

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Articles - October 2012
Monday, September 24, 2012


Albany: Mill-town transition

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 Above: Historic downtown Albany is attracting a growing numer of upscale shops and restaurants, part of an urban-renewal goal to draw more people to the central core.
Below: There are 23 restaurants in downtown Albany, including Sybaris Bistro, owned by James Beard nominee Matt Bennett.
//Photos by Sierra Breshears
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This past winter, an entirely new kind of business set up shop in Albany: Seattle-based EnerG2, a green nanotech startup that develops engineered carbon material for energy storage. The company benefits from the presence of Albany’s wood-products companies, which supply raw materials used in manufacturing, says plant manager Shaun Mortensen. EnerG2 employs about 25 people and already plans to increase capacity next year.

Albany’s economy is rooted in heavy industry and wood products. But the decline of the timber industry — symbolized by the closure of the International Paper mill in 2009 — has dealt a blow to that identity and the local economy. Over 40% of the jobs lost in Benton County were in wood products. Heavy-metals companies such as Wah Chang have also sustained job losses. Meanwhile, the housing-market collapse undercut Albany’s reputation as a mecca for antiques shoppers. Pre-recession, there were 15 antique stores downtown, says Oscar Hult, executive director of the Downtown Association. “Today there are four.”

Some of Albany’s traditional economic drivers are in decline. But a new generation of businesses is helping offset those losses, building on the city’s core strengths while also diversifying the city’s brand. For example, EnerG2 chose Albany in part because of the city’s reputation as a material-processing center and proximity to Oregon State University in nearby Corvallis. Vice president of manufacturing Phil Souza says the company also collaborates with Oregon Freeze Dry, which is building a new facility focusing on novel freeze-dry pharmaceutical technologies. The plant will employ about 35 people.

New types of businesses are also opening in Albany’s historic downtown, where a decade-old urban-renewal effort has created a mix of charming, renovated historic buildings. Capitalizing on the mid-Willamette Valley craft-brewing craze, Deluxe Brewing Co. and Sinister Distilling will open this fall. Another new establishment is Sweet Red Coffee & Wine Bistro, serving contemporary cuisine such as roasted asparagus with balsamic chili reduction and mushroom fondue. Albany has always been a French fries and bar food kind of town, says owner Cindi Alire. “I want people here to experience something out of their comfort zone.”

Not all downtown real estate is thriving. The WheelHouse, a sleek new waterfront office/restaurant/retail building, was completed in 2010 but, so far, has attracted only one tenant. Law firms, stockbrokers, restaurant owners and other prospective renters are “being cautious and conservative,” says developer David Johnson, who financed the $7 million building by selling a custom-packaging company he founded. Still, he’s optimistic about the future.

Albany is changing; it’s becoming a bedroom community for Corvallis and attracting more people interested in downtown amenities. Besides, says Johnson, pointing to sweeping views of the Willamette, the central core has a precious resource few communities possess. “There are only so many natural waterways,” he says.


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