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'Climate change' warms Metro, Cornelius, Forest Grove

Time, money, cooperation help improve attitudes


The sun was shining outside the Forest Grove Community Auditorium on an afternoon in late February.

But the warm glow inside was less from the rays than the attitude.

For two hours, leaders and advocates from the far west end of the Metro region talked optimistically about growth, strong economies, bike lanes and future plans.

The Metro Council’s meeting in Forest Grove had no harsh words or major points of disagreement — a notable change from the prevailing attitudes of only a few years ago.

For all the tension between regionalism and local control in parts of the Portland region, Forest Grove and Cornelius present a hopeful case study — that tensions settle, that attitudes change, and that everyone benefits in the end.

That’s not to say there’s unanimous celebration of regional coordination. Disagreements still simmer about the urban growth boundary and development plans. But it’s nothing like it was in the past.

It wasn’t long ago that Metro was viewed as the cause of many of Forest Grove’s problems. In 2007, residents angrily blamed Metro for a proposal to build townhomes near the city’s downtown.

In 2008, incensed that the Metro Council wouldn’t grant Cornelius its request to expand the urban growth boundary, then-Mayor Bill Bash told two visiting Metro councilors at a city council meeting that his city was looking at withdrawing from the region.

“There wasn’t a monolithic, official city position,” said former Cornelius city manager Dave Waffle. But community members’ perspectives ranged “from hostility to indifference to frustration,” he said. There was definitely a dearth of “love and affection and that end of the continuum.”

What’s unfolded since is a story about time, patience and listening — on both sides — leading to the scene last month in downtown Forest Grove.

Two small towns,

miles from the rest

It’s easy to understand why Forest Grove and Cornelius felt detached from the rest of the region. It wasn’t just that they are suburban communities, with a mile of farmland between them and the west edge of Hillsboro — and a 25-mile drive to downtown Portland, much of it on two-lane country roads.

“We’re an extremity of the district, right?” said Cornelius Mayor Jef Dalin. “We’re so far away it’s like ‘Hey, do you guys understand what’s going on out here?’”

On the westside, the world has gradually been shifting for decades. Hillsboro’s leaders learned to stop worrying and love urbanization, embracing the change from agricultural county seat to booming tech town in the 1990s.

Forest Grove, on the other hand, remained afraid of change for years. Officials dreaded the idea of Pacific University, one of the city’s anchors, moving facilities east to Hillsboro — or worse, Portland.

“There was a little bit of fear,” Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax says about the move by Pacific, which has more than 3,000 students.

Cornelius was changing as well. “Oregon’s Family Town” was 15 percent Latino in 1990. By 2010, its total population had nearly doubled, with more than half its residents Latino.

The challenges of change drew predictable solutions: Expand the urban growth boundary and allow more development. Focus less on walkability and more on helping people get to distant jobs.

“Most of our citizens are here because they didn’t want to be in downtown Portland, and they can’t afford to be in Lake Oswego or some of the areas in Clackamas County,” Dalin says.

Ironically, the preferred path to deal with the changing world around them was to try to replicate it, to focus on suburbs and subdivisions — not to reinforce the small-town attributes that made them healthy communities in their own right, long before Metro came along.

Collaboration leads

the attitude change

Nobody would say Metro single-handedly brought Forest Grove and Cornelius along the path of improved regional relations. It was a combination of factors — chief among them, collaboration.

The cities themselves had some excellent community assets — Centro Cultural, the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, the university — but in many respects they were lone actors, focused on their own missions.

That played out in regional politics as well. Forest Grove leaders, for example, felt funding for transportation improvements elsewhere in Washington County threatened their own transportation goals.

Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington knew she was facing an uphill battle in her district when she was first elected to represent northern and western Washington County in 2006.

“When I started, it was a year after a very contentious set of urban growth boundary decisions had been completed,” Harrington said. “There were multiple remands, and many elected officials just felt their communities weren’t understood — nor heard.”

Harrington knew she couldn’t make her western constituencies feel like they were being listened to overnight. But she made it a point to go out four times a year to city council meetings in each of the four cities in her district, for a check-in with the elected officials in the cities she also represents. Sometimes, she brought staff or fellow Metro councilors.

“Kathryn Harrington’s determination to keep on communicating and smiling and being a positive face for Metro and being willing to listen, I think that’s made the biggest difference,” Waffle said.

Truax agreed. “She’s shown the courage to come out and talk to us when times have not been good.”

With the increased communication, Metro became more aware of the needs of the two communities, while Forest Grove and Cornelius officials became more aware of helpful Metro programs — and were easier to work with, even in disagreement.

“If you’re the kid sitting at the end of the table throwing his food around and getting slop everywhere, people tend not to want to sit at that table,” Dalin said.

The Metro Council meeting Feb. 25 was filled with examples of cooperation. Dalin pointed out the construction excise tax grants his city received through Metro, one for planning an industrial area, another for planning a residential area southeast of the city.

He thanked the Metro Council for providing $20,000 for consultant Michele Reeves to look at the downtown area and provide ideas on how it might improve.

The Metro Council unanimously approved releasing an easement along a natural area, between Forest Grove and Gales Creek, so Forest Grove can build a trail connecting Highway 47 and the B Street Trail, part of its long-sought Emerald Necklace.

“Look at the support for the Council Creek Regional Trail,” Harrington said. “We’re continuing to work on the connectivity of all types.”

Relationship is better,

but hardly perfect

There’s more to be done, of course. The relationship isn’t perfect. Some of the old scabs get ripped off, like when Forest Grove’s and Cornelius’ growth plans became chits in the negotiations for a land-use bargain in this year’s legislative session.

There isn’t close to a universal embrace of the Metro region’s planning philosophies. It’s more, Dalin says, an acceptance that the path that’s been presented is really the only path to take.

“When you’re given a menu of chicken and you really want steak, well, looks like you’re going to be eating chicken if you want to eat,” the Cornelius mayor says. “The Metro directive has been ‘focus on our centers.’ We understand, that’s the program and we need to get in the program.”

Dalin says Cornelius is still trying to create family-wage jobs and industrial development on the north side of town. He insists more needs to be done to improve the westside’s jobs-housing balance.

Money alone didn’t buy peace on the westside. Listening didn’t, either. It took time to reassure far-west leaders that their core pieces weren’t slipping away, time for new partnerships and relationships and experiments to work out.

It’s become clear that Pacific University’s new Health Professions Campus in Hillsboro has strengthened, not dampened, its presence in Forest Grove, where the university has added new buildings, new dorms and upgraded its athletic facilities.

“Pacific University is having a regional face about it, and that’s something we not only have come to accept, but come to embrace in Forest Grove,” Truax said.

Harrington said she wants to see the communities change for the better, maintaining their small town character instead of fearing that change will be detrimental.

“If you’d asked the community of Cornelius 15 years ago, did they see themselves as having an internationally known coffee shop — Starbucks — they would have said ‘no way.’ But it’s a thriving place!” Harrington says. “Wilco just remodeled. It’s a two-story building now. They still provide a marketplace for the adjacent farm and nursery industry. They’re doing the things to maintain their small-town feel.”

That brings us back to February, which was a capstone on the years of change between Metro and the westside. There were no signs of contention as the regional government came and paid a visit to its most distant outpost.

“It’s really a reflection of how successful we’ve all been at better understanding community visions and how to work together to realize them,” Harrington said later. “Doesn’t our public demand that?”

Metro News Editor Nick Christensen can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 503-813-7583. Follow Metro on Twitter @oregonmetro.




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