Pieces of the future
A tenacious tribe of volunteers plays a vital role in Reedsport’s success
By Christina Williams
The stretch of Highway 101 between Florence and Coos Bay skims behind the dunes into the trees, limiting the breathtaking views that characterize the coastal road. At Gardiner, 101 snakes down a hill and the view opens up to the right, dominated by the abandoned International Paper mill and the swollen Umpqua River flowing into Winchester Bay.
The highway winds along, crossing the Smith River and then the Umpqua and then passes quickly through the town of Reedsport, anchored at one end by the Harbor Light restaurant and at the other by Reedsport High School. It’s a town whose natural beauty belies the scars of a declining job base and a school system whose population has halved over the past 20 years.
Tucked in across the street from the 7-Eleven behind a chain link fence at the southern edge of Lions Park, the 15,000-square-foot skate park is easily missed in a Reedsport drive-by. But on a chilly winter afternoon in the waning daylight, its cement bowls and loop-able pipe are buzzing with young men on skateboards.
Twinkie Goorhuis, a petite blond mom in jeans and a warm rain jacket, watches. “It’s a microcosm of society,” she says. “There are all these unwritten rules and etiquette. There’s a lot of mentorship that happens here between the older kids and the beginners.”
Inspired by her eighth-grade son (he’s now 16) who was trying to hone his skateboarding skills without incurring the wrath of neighbors, Goorhuis raised the money for the skate park, just over $250,000. A dentist’s wife who has lived in Reedsport for 23 years, she also got it built in spite of a city government that wasn’t sure they wanted to take on responsibility for such a thing in one of their parks.
Goorhuis, though, was unwavering in her crusade. The park opened in 2003 and was expanded last summer. She’s written a 75-page manual, titled How to Get a Skate Park in Your Town, that she’ll give away to anyone who asks. For her next project, she’d love to rally other volunteers and finish an overhaul of the tired town park, add a fountain and colorful walkways, along with an artistic wrought iron fence to replace the grimy chain links.
Twinkie Goorhuis is a member of an important, tenacious tribe of 20 or so Reedsport volunteers that is diligently working on the town’s biggest issues. The volunteers’ brand of leadership is a messy one. It comes with rolled up sleeves and a willingness to wrangle over priorities and it thrives on the input of a variety of citizens who work with each other, the city and on their own to make improvements to their community. Some find themselves in the trenches, others up front at meetings. They wish there were more of them. If all goes as planned, there will be.
A FEW YEARS AGO, there were just a handful of community volunteers and they were getting tired. They kept bumping into each other at various meetings and started to feel like they were in an echo chamber, with only each other to talk to. They wrote a letter to the Ford Family Foundation in Roseburg, asking for help with leadership training.
As it happened, Ford was launching a program on leadership in rural areas. In spring 2004, the program made its debut in Reedsport with a class of 30 people — some new to town, some longtime citizens, some students, some retirees. Through a succession of weekend classes, they completed 60 hours of leadership training — personality assessments, conflict resolution strategies, project management and the like.
The class was a breath of fresh air for Sheri Aasen, administrator of the Dunes Family Medical Clinic in Reedsport. “We’re in a depressed community and I run a rural clinic. That’s a tough job. Everyone was just depressed. Then came the training,” Aasen says. “That class was so much fun. You walked away thinking you might be able to do something to make a difference.”
It was also good practice for the roles they were asked to take on in the community when the initial training wrapped up later that year. As a class, they had to pick a project to work on, something that would benefit Reedsport. They all had different ideas and strong opinions about what was needed most. After deliberation, some of which took the form of arguments, they picked the renovation of Pacific Auditorium at Reedsport High School.
WRESTLING OVER PRIORITIES is an important aspect of collaborative leadership. It goes on at pretty much every meeting of the Coastal Douglas Arts and Business Alliance, a nonprofit group that continues the work the class started on the auditorium, along with support for other arts-related causes. With a board populated by graduates of the leadership class, the group recently debated whether or not to host a concert at the auditorium as part of the Oregon Coast Music Festival. One question: Is it worth it to rally the volunteers if we only get a small turnout? One response: That’s why we overhauled the auditorium in the first place; to bring more events and, over time, raise interest.
Josh Savey, a 17-year-old junior at Reedsport High, chairs the committee in charge of finishing the auditorium overhaul. While the first phase is done and the auditorium is up and running, completing the balconies will require more fundraising and more volunteer work.
A graduate of the leadership training class, Savey was surprised to find out from his personality inventory that he’s an extrovert. “I’m not one of those kids who’s always talking,” he says. But he’s comfortable hanging with the adults at CDABA (“cah-DA-ba”) meetings, soliciting bids from contractors and making financial reports back to the group. And he believes in the importance of the auditorium as a worthy cause — “I’m really into the auditorium,” is how he puts it — to the extent that he’ll stick with the project, even if it stretches on after he leaves for college (University of Oregon and the University of Portland are both in the running) in a year and a half.
Savey is a favorite among group members who say that the fact that his name resembles the word savvy suits his skill level and drive. The teenager signed up to be a trainer and will help teach the next Ford leadership class to be held in town this spring. But his dedication to Reedsport only goes so far. After college, he doesn’t anticipate a place for himself in the small coastal community. “I don’t see working here,” he says. “There are no jobs.”
EVERY VOLUNTEER IN REEDSPORT has a slightly different take on what the priorities of the region should be, but jobs are near the top of everyone’s list.
Many in the Reedsport/Winchester Bay Chamber of Commerce (membership: 172) are focused on attracting more year-round tourists by beefing up an already busy roster of events and festivals. Residents wince when they mention Reedsport’s downtown, a less-than-lively strip of storefronts along Highway 38 just before it joins up with 101, and the riverfront property beside it, both of which are ripe for an overhaul. The Lower Umpqua Economic Development Forum is focused on recruiting employers to fill the void left in the community from when the International Paper mill shut down in 1999, taking 300 jobs with it. Others say that the first step should be developing housing to make way for new jobs, the current housing stock having been discovered by retirees drifting up the coast from Bandon or down from Florence.
Ike Launstein, chairman of the Lower Umpqua Economic Development Forum, is one of the longtime community volunteers who asked for help in training others. Is he happy with the early results of the leadership training? His answer is measured. “It’s a piece, and we need all the pieces we can get,” he says. “It’s not going to be the salvation.”
It takes time, Launstein explains, for new leaders to grow into their role. And in the meantime there’s plenty to do. What worries Launstein, who technically is retired, is the thought that Reedsport might become a true retirement community.
“We’re trying to strike a balance,” says the former schools superintendent who’s uneasy at the town’s dwindling school population. Launstein aspires to the “Bend model” of economic development, where the main attraction is the physical beauty (and, in Reedsport’s case, fantastic fishing) and business follows.
For Launstein and others, the site of the IP mill in Gardiner represents hope as a future home for new employers. The plant is being dismantled and should be down to concrete slabs by this summer. The 200-acre plot sports water rights, a rail connection and an effluent pipe stretching out into the water. Community volunteers are working to get the land designated by the state as a shovelready industrial site.
A New Jersey company, Ocean Power Technologies, has been looking at the site in conjunction with Oregon State University’s wave power generation project, and plans are in the works to use some of the land for a pilot site that would place buoys out in the ocean to generate electricity.
Launstein would like to see several new employers share the site and provide family wage jobs such as those being created by American Bridge. Recruited with the help of the region’s volunteer army and a coup for Reedsport, the Pennsylvania engineering and construction firm opened its facility in 2004 and has staffed up to 62 employees over the past 12 months.
Such family wage jobs are welcome addition to the mix, says Jeff Vander Kley, harbor manager at the Salmon Harbor Marina south of downtown Reedsport in Winchester Bay. Under Vander Kley’s watch, the harbor has transformed itself from a fishing marina to a tourist destination complete with an RV resort that opened five years ago and stays full June through September, playing host to big luxury RVs that cruise the coast.
Vander Kley is working on securing funding to expand the resort and add a recreation facility and welcome center. The harbor supports its $2 million annual budget with the proceeds from its operations. Vander Kley sees his role as sustaining the region’s tourism draw. But as a member of the economic development forum, he’s also concerned about the direction the rest of the economy is heading. “We need more than people flipping hamburgers,” he says.
“This community needs to coalesce around a set of priorities,” Vander Kley says. “This area is formidable when we all get together. But we tend to deal with the priority that comes up and get led down a path that may not benefit everyone.”
Even if priorities are still disparate, there’s a real sense in Reedsport that change is welcome. Even at Reedsport City Hall, there’s a new face in the city manager’s office —Rick Hohnbaum, who started the job in October.
“There’s a desire to change our economic base here, to make things better,” Hohnbaum says. “There’s a lot of consensus building in the community.”
Hohnbaum, who has registered for the second leadership training class being offered by Ford this spring, is under no illusion that the city could be effective without the volunteers who are putting in effort on various projects around town. He sees the city’s role as one of convener, bringing together the various volunteer groups to the table to plot a plan for the city. “It’s going to take all of them,” he says.
Reedsport’s volunteer corps travels with diverse ideas about what the town needs and putting them into action is what leadership is about.
Twinkie Goorhuis sought support from her neighbors but drove the skate park initiative almost on her own, from collecting cans to soliciting grants. Still, while her initial motive may have been selfish — building a place where her son could skate — the project took on more of a community mission as it progressed, from making the park a usable place to grooming the next generation.
She greets a sweatshirted, baggy-jeaned boy as he arrives at the park, skateboard under his arm. “If you get to know these kids, their creativity is amazing,” she says. “They’re not the ones who are going to play team sports. But if you channel these kids in the right direction, they’re the ones who are going to invent things and start companies.”
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