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SOOR's future in Newberg uncertain

Summer State Games may have outgrown Newberg, organization weighing its options

The 2016 Special Olympics Oregon (SOOR) Summer State Games drew 2,484 total delegates July 9-10, making it the largest contingent since the event was revived and moved to Newberg in 2011.

The increase of nearly 300 athletes, coaches and unified partners from 2015 was certainly something to celebrate at the Games, but the growth of SOOR’s marquis event over the past five years may be a double-edged sword for the organization and for Newberg as its home.SETH GORDON - Special Olympics Oregon officials must decide in the month or so whether the Summer State Games will return to Newberg next year or depart for a venue with better accommodations.

The only Newberg facility to reach capacity was the Austin Sports Complex, home of the increasingly popular bocce tournament, but even using accommodations in surrounding communities, SOOR had to reach as far as the University of Portland to house its athletes and coaches earlier this month.

Newberg’s fate as host is now up in the air, as SOOR is both evaluating its options for the 2017 Games and searching the state for a new long-term home.

“Except for a few more hotels, Newberg is perfect,” SOOR CEO Margie Hunt said. “The venues are great. The town is wonderful. It’s the right size. Our families come there and they feel like they’re home. We’ve just got to sort this through and hope all of our friends will be patient while we figure it out.”

Ken and Joan Austin’s initial donation, believed to be $1 million, helped fund the revival of the Games, and a second gift from the founders of A-dec Inc. extended the agreement for two years through this summer’s event, but SOOR has not yet made a decision about 2017.

Hunt, however, said the fate of the 2017 games, either in Newberg or elsewhere, is not dependent on a similar gift from the Austins at this point.

“What they’ve been able to do is help us create an event that others support,” Hunt said. “Many people, especially in the beginning, have supported them because the Austins did. We are forever indebted. There is no way to ever thank them enough.”

Hunt and other SOOR representatives have been effusive in their praise for Newberg, crediting the community’s passion, commitment, hospitality and support as key to the event’s rapid growth. Seventy percent of the 1,200 volunteers at this year’s event were from the Newberg area.

That has put SOOR, which held a special board meeting to discuss the matter last week and has a committee working with staff on the problem, in a bit of a Catch 22 situation.

Moving to a community that can better accommodate the delegates will be hard enough, but would a likely larger city be able to replicate the welcoming and committed atmosphere in which the Games have thrived since moving to the small town?

“That is hard to replace and you don’t do it overnight,” Hunt said. “If we do end up having to relocate the games, that’s the bitter pill. It’s not the money that you leave because you can find support in lots of ways today. It’s the people that you can’t replace.”

Furthermore, if the event is moved, there is a good chance that participation would shrink, at least initially.

Hunt also noted that the clock is ticking in terms of making a decision for the 2017 Games, estimating that SOOR has 30 days at most to choose its strategies. One of those would be to shrink the size of the Games and keep them in Newberg, but that is hardly desirable to Hunt or anyone at SOOR.

“We already have instituted quotas in certain sports,” Hunt said in a release. “But the message we continue to hear from our athletes and coaches is that they do not want to limit the number of athletes any further.”

Hunt did say that if SOOR were to move the Games out of Newberg, that it would continue to operate in town, possibly by moving one of its summer regional tournaments here.

“If we end up having to relocate, we’ll have some grumpy athletes,” Hunt said. “We all love Newberg, so it’s difficult. But we will never completely leave Newberg because it’s too terrific.”