The chair of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde explains why the group wants to buy the 23-acre plot of land near Willamette Falls in Oregon City.
Along the Willamette River in Oregon City is a natural wonder that few people get to see up close: Willamette Falls, North America’s second largest waterfall by volume.
The site, until last year, had been cut off from the public for 150 years as industry took over the land surrounding the falls to build factories that were powered by the force of water.
These factories once housed the largest woolen mill and newsprint producer on the West Coast. The last employer, the Blue Heron Paper Company, closed in 2011.
A view of a derelict Blue Heron Paper Company factory building, which closed in 2011.
But for generations before industry took over the land, the Clackamas tribe, a group of Native Americans who are now part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, lived along the river, which is an important fishing site for the tribe.
Now the group has the opportunity to reclaim the land that was once its homeland. The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde is in talks to buy the property surrounding the Willamette Falls from George Heidgerken, the developer whose company, Falls Legacy LLC, bought the site in 2014 for around $2.3 million.
For Cheryle Kennedy, chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, it is a chance to reclaim her people’s cultural heritage. Kennedy is descended from members of the Clackamas tribe.
“We are grateful that this opportunity came forward, and count it as a blessing that we are able to perhaps once again have this as part of our homeland,” says Kennedy.
Willamette Falls in the distance. The waterfall is surrounded by 23 acres of disused industrial buildings.
The tribe has been interested in buying the property for many years, even before Heidgerken bought the property out of bankruptcy court five years ago, says Kennedy.
For several years, plans have been in the works to open up the site to the public and develop recreational activities surrounding the falls.
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Several public agencies — including Metro, Oregon City, Clackamas County and the State of Oregon — have worked together to design a mile-long riverwalk, which would wind through the site, eventually ending at a viewing area overlooking the falls.
The series of pathways comprising the riverwalk would include gathering spaces and interpretive signs describing the historical and cultural importance of the site.
The redevelopment is challenging because of the many derelict factory buildings. Several were constructed in layers on top of each other and are made out of concrete, steel and wood.
A disused Portland General Electric dam is on the Willamette Falls site.
The site is also contaminated with hazardous materials, including asbestos and lead-based paint.
The redesign would conserve some of the derelict buildings to educate the public about the site’s industrial past.
Kennedy would not go into details about the tribe’s plans for the site. A hotel, commercial offices, apartments, restaurants and retail outlets have been proposed by the partners, but nothing is set in stone.
“We are very interested in bringing cultural heritage into the riverwalk design,” says Kennedy.
For the past few years, redevelopment plans have been overshadowed by a disagreement between the property developer and government agencies over the redesign.
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The Willamette Falls Legacy Project, the organization heading the redevelopment, says plans to start construction of the first phase of the riverwalk, scheduled to begin in spring 2020, can go ahead despite the purchase and sale agreement between the tribe and Heidgerken.
“There are various interest groups working on the development of the property, and we have been in partnership with those,” says Kennedy. “We will continue working with those players, and I believe we will come up with a multiuse area.”
The tribe also plans to buy a parcel of land that includes more than a mile of waterfront property 4 miles upriver from Willamette Falls.
Kennedy says the tribe plans to grow specific plants on the property to make articles that are important to the tribe’s cultural heritage.
The group is halfway through its due diligence of both properties as part of the sales process.
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