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Estacada ponders economic development equation


National downturn presents opportunities for future growth

by: NEWS PHOTO: SCOTT JORGENSEN - Estacada City Councilor Sean Drinkwine supervises the painting of a downtown storefront as nearby vacancies persist.Estacada’s downtown business district includes several storefronts. Some of them house vibrant going concerns, while others still sit empty, awaiting the eventual arrival of future ventures.

Economic development is a big issue in any community, more so during downturns. And while no town is completely immune to market conditions at the federal, state or even international level, there are steps they can take to create and implement visions for what the future should look like once things do finally turn around.

It’s no secret that times have been tough all over the United States since the unprecedented financial crisis of 2008 sent the economy into a tailspin. At the state level, Oregon continues to struggle with higher than average unemployment.

But for Phil Lingelbach, chairman of the Estacada Development Association, the focus is strictly local.

“Our immediate challenge is to find businesses to fill the vacant storefronts that we have,” Lingelbach said. “That’s a critical thing right now that we’re looking at.”

The EDA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to downtown revitalization. It’s part of the Main Street Organization, a national movement to redevelop and help downtowns become more competitive and viable.

Those kinds of transitions can be especially important for communities like Estacada, with its rich history of natural resource-based industries.

Entering Estacada from Highway 224, one can’t help but notice the abandoned RSG Mill site. Once one of the area’s largest employers, it serves now as more of a reminder of the past than any indication of pending prosperity.

City Manager William Elliott is well aware of the dynamics involved, and said the city is working toward expanding its economic base.

About 130 acres of property have been annexed into the urban growth boundary and zoned for industrial use. Elliott said that area still needs to be connected to the city’s infrastructure and that a local improvement district may be formed for that purpose.

The new industrial area contains parcels of 50 and 25 acres, Elliott said, and some of the smaller lots can be combined if need be.

Lingelbach said that should aid in the city’s economic development efforts. He added that an industrial business had looked for a 50-acre site in Estacada, but the lack of one prompted that company to locate in The Dalles instead.

“If we have more industrial land available, particularly if someone’s bringing quite a few jobs, it will be advantageous for us to have later sites available in addition to all the ones we currently have,” Lingelbach said. “We need family-wage jobs, and manufacturing is one way to do it. We have to be prepared for those opportunities when they come along.”

Lingelbach said building the city’s industrial base will provide other benefits to local residents.

“A big problem that we have here is that almost three-fourths of the people who are employed are employed somewhere else. We’ve gradually, over the years, become a bedroom community,” he said. “But an industrial park will provide jobs so we don’t have as many people driving to work.”

Lack of access to natural gas also has been identified as an impediment to economic growth in Estacada. Elliott describes it as a “chicken and egg” situation, as the initial infrastructure investment for such projects tends to be significant.

That issue has been discussed at length, Lingelbach said, with no easy solutions being offered.

“Everyone wants natural gas, but they don’t want a natural gas line going through their property,” Lingelbach said. “The question is, how long would it take to pay for itself to get it out here? We do have some industrial sites that would love to have it, who are operating on propane, which is more expensive and time consuming to manage.”

Another economic development tool at the city’s disposal is an urban renewal district in the downtown area. The district has a lifespan of 20 years, five of which have already come and gone.

Lingelbach said 10 businesses have taken advantage of a façade improvement program funded through the urban renewal agency.

Tourism also can play a role in the city’s economic development.

“In the long run, we’re looking at developing better connections to recreational opportunities involving the Clackamas River,” Lingelbach said. “We’re really not taking a lot of advantage of that opportunity.”

The subject of bicycle tourism was the topic of a recent lunchtime forum sponsored by the Estacada Area Chamber of Commerce. Lingelbach said officials are working with the city of Detroit and Travel Oregon to develop a scenic bike route between here and there.

“A big benefit for us is it would be the closest scenic bikeway to the Portland area, where a great portion of the state’s bicyclists are,” Lingelbach said. “We’re thinking that would be a good move. Hopefully, that would attract more bicyclists to the area.”

Houses are still being built in Estacada, Lingelbach said. Although it’s far from being a building boom, he adds that it has been relatively steady.

In the coming weeks, Lingelbach said he plans to continue working with the city on creating more mixed zoning uses for the spaces above downtown buildings so they also can be used for housing.

All of these different aspects could prove to be critical components of the city’s future growth.

“Hopefully, we’ll have some of these storefronts filled in the next year or two,” Lingelbach said.

Lingelbach has been involved with the development association since 2000 and been a member of its board since 2003. He said he has seen some positive developments in that time, despite some of the very obvious challenges.

“We’ve come through it better than a lot of places,” Lingelbach said. “I remember the dot-com recession was a lot worse here. We have made progress.”