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Mark Frohnmayer builds a Utopian empire in Eugene

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Articles - December 2010
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Pizza Research Institute, with its vegan and vegetarian pizzas, helped Frohnmayer's renovation project gain acceptance in Eugene's Whiteaker neighborhood.
From the need to fill this new space and a dream to make a difference was born Arcimoto, the electric car company that Frohnmayer started in October 2007 with two full-time employees. The company’s first electric vehicle, dubbed Version 1, is an adorable little open-topped delivery car in sunshine yellow. Not terribly practical in the Oregon winter (or spring or fall), but an attention-getter.

While being the son of Dave Frohnmayer, former University of Oregon president, has many advantages, it can be a disadvantage in an artsy, anarchist neighborhood like Whiteaker. Dave Frohnmayer acknowledges that his political baggage as a Republican candidate for governor in 1990 followed his son to some degree. Residents of Whiteaker were concerned that “a Frohnmayer” was coming in to raze buildings and gentrify their neighborhood, pushing out longtime residents. “But Mark is not ostentatious,” his father says, “and I admire him for that. He does his part by living it.”

Mark Frohnmayer took the concerns of his neighbors seriously and tried to solve problems, not create them. “I talked to lots of people about ideas and elements to bring in,” he says, especially around Whiteaker’s aesthetics and cultural values. He brought longtime Eugene fixture Pizza Research Institute (PRI), which had been serving creative vegetarian and vegan pizzas in town for two decades. (Frohnmayer himself is a vegetarian.) They moved a cleaned-out shipping container into the space to serve as a kitchen and invited local groups to hold fundraisers and informational events in the restaurant. PRI is also a stop on Eugene’s alternative Last Friday art walk.

“Mark is one of a handful of youngish entrepreneurs improving the neighborhood,” says PRI owner Will Boise. He was concerned that PRI might not be able to draw customers from outside the Whiteaker neighborhood, but that hasn’t been a problem in the year since the business moved. “Mark’s vision is to have this space be a model of urban revitalization,” Boise says, “and he’s been willing to go out on a limb with this project. It took a serious fiscal investment on his part.”

The restaurant shares a back patio with the “crack house,” as Frohnmayer calls it. Sliding glass doors lead from the PRI patio to what is now a cheery little house that Frohnmayer and his former redevelopment partner emptied and scrubbed. Frohnmayer then renovated it to serve as a wellness center and yoga studio where he and another instructor teach several yoga classes each week.

The final piece of the Blair Boulevard puzzle, where Frohnmayer is now the sole redeveloper, is the Arcimoto facility, where the electric-car prototypes are built in their entirety and the full-time staff has grown to eight. The front office houses desks for design, marketing and accounting staff; the back room is where the vehicles come to life. One wall of the glassed-in conference room serves as a showcase for potential Arcimoto vehicle designs.

It may seem counterintuitive to some to build a vehicle manufacturing business in a place like Eugene, but Frohnmayer would disagree. “It’s a national hub of motor-coach manufacturing,” he says. “We have a large potential workforce that’s already largely trained.” Three current Arcimoto employees bring their expertise from three wrecked RV companies from the area — Monaco, Country Coach and Marathon — to the electric-vehicle realm, and Frohnmayer would like to hire more experienced but displaced RV workers to build EVs when the cars are in regular production. (The first very small fleet of cars will be ready by the end of this year.) “If you have people in your back yard who are equipped to deal with tomorrow’s problems,” Frohnmayer says, “we shouldn’t outsource that expertise and that labor around the world.”



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