A Happy Tale of Two Cities

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and Congressman Kurt Schrader break ground with local transit experts and local elected officials at the future Keizer Transit Center. A key to success for this project was how the local delegation worked with the federal delegation to secure project funding. It may seem strange to write about disparate developments in two Oregon communities in the same blog post, but what happened illustrates the solidarity of Oregon citizens when they face challenges.

In one case, hundreds of citizens, accompanied by a host of public officials, turned out in Vernonia this week to dedicate a new school building that replaces a former school ravaged by the disastrous floods of 2007 — which left many people homeless and resulted in a state and federal disaster declaration.  

The new school is a beautiful facility on higher ground that will help 600 Vernonia students from kindergarten through high school learn in a modern, quality environment. But it also is a tribute to the resilience of citizens who after the flood raised almost $50 million to finance, design and construct the new school. The last piece of the funding puzzle came in the waning hours of the 2011 legislature when Joint Ways and Means Committee leaders finally made good a session-long pledge to provide the last $3.9 million in bonding authority.

Citizens who ate the first meal in the cafeteria of a school that should last well into the 22nd century cheered as Reps. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, and Debbie Boone, D-Cannon Beach, and Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, complimented them for pulling up their own bootstraps in the aftermath of the worst flood in the history in this small Columbia County community.

The phrase "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps" reminded me of a time many years ago when, as deputy director of the Oregon Economic Development Department, I spoke to a graduate school class in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Leaders there wanted to hear about how Oregon had diversified its economy after the decline in its forest industry. They reasoned Oregon's experience could help them identify a strategy to diversify beyond making Michelin tires.

My French translator that evening had difficulty communicating the meaning of "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps." He ended up gesturing as he grabbed the seat of his pants and stood up.

That's what went through my head as I watched citizens in the small town of Vernonia celebrate their own success in lifting themselves up by the seat of their pants.

Just days before, citizens and public officials in Keizer broke ground on a new Transit Center that is the first step to making the state's capital easier to navigate without a car. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, Congressman Kurt Schrader, Senate President Peter Courtney and Rep. Kim Thatcher turned shovels of dirt to commemorate the start of construction on a state-of-the-art facility near I-5 and the Keizer Station Shopping Center that will include park-and-ride spaces, bicycle storage and other amenities.

Salem-Keizer Transit Board Member Ron Christopher said, "I'm excited about the facility and how it'll affect the area.  I hope it will draw more businesses and people wanting to buy homes."

The new center is the first of four on the drawing board and will be a way to meet what Transit Agency Executive Director Allan Pollock calls the "three Cs of transit — a system of neighborhood Circulators, a series of regional transit Centers and a response to transit users in high-frequency Corridors.

A key to success of the new Transit Center was doggedness in pursuing a $2.8 million Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant at a time when congressional earmarking was abolished. My CFM colleague in DC, Joel Rubin, stayed on top of the project until the grant was received, with strong support from Schrader, Wyden and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley.

In a piece drafted for the Salem Economic Development Corporation newsletter, Pollock said he hoped the keys to success — transit expertise in his agency, a unanimous local coalition in favor of the project and doggedness in pursuit of federal dollars — would continue to unlock a solid transit future for the Salem-Keizer region.Vernonia pulled together after a devastating flood to build a new school on higher ground, which also stands as a monument to the community's resiliency.