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District would extend from Oregon City, West Linn to Lake Oswego

by: SUBMITTED FILE PHOTO - This overhead shot of the former Blue Heron Paper Co. property below Willamette Falls shows part of the area proposed for inclusion in a new national heritage area from Oregon City and West Linn to Lake Oswego.Relics of Lake Oswego’s history as the “Pittsburgh of the West” are poised for addition to a proposed national area spanning 26 square miles around Willamette Falls.

The Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition is pushing for Lake Oswego to sign on as a partner in its effort to secure national recognition that the falls, between Oregon City and West Linn, represent a place of national historical significance.

Proponents believe the designation would boost economic revitalization and better protect historical, cultural and natural resources. The group has been rallying support to convince Congress to create the area since 2006. It would be the first national heritage area in the Pacific Northwest.

Alice Norris, coalition president, last week urged local elected leaders to pledge their support. While the heritage area is largely focused around Willamette Falls, Lake Oswego’s history is connected, she said.

“We couldn’t really tell the story of industry without telling the story of the Pittsburgh of the West, Lake Oswego, and your iron smelting history,” she said.

Norris said a resolution of support from Lake Oswego is “really the last formal thing we need to add Lake Oswego into the boundaries of the national heritage area,” which at 26 square miles would be smaller than most heritage areas in the United States. She said the designation would not impose new regulations on the area, nor would it affect zoning or land use.

Northwest’s ‘birthplace of industry’

In her presentation to the city council, Norris highlighted the natural history of the falls, including connections to the Missoula Ice Age floods that shaped much of the Northwest’s landscape, and the site’s importance as a gathering place for native tribes, who still hold the world’s biggest Pacific lamprey harvest there. The Oregon Trail ended at Oregon City, which was home to the territorial government.

Paper mills were located in the cities on either side of Willamette Falls, and the woolen mill there once employed thousands of people. But perhaps the most important characteristic, Norris said, is the site’s significance to transmission of power. The first long-distance transmission of electricity took place there — from Willamette Falls to Portland, 14 miles away. It was the first of its kind in the world, beating Niagara Falls for that honor, she said.

“Because of Willamette Falls, this was the birthplace of industry in the American Pacific Northwest,” Norris said. “It’s a very important place.”

“Join us, because our stories are related,” Norris told the city council last week. “We’re all river people. The impacts of the Willamette Falls area and the stories are terribly interconnected.”

Other partners who have endorsed the initiative include the cities of Oregon City and West Linn, Clackamas County, Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, national and state preservation and parks and recreation agencies, along with nonprofits such as county arts, tourism and business-related groups and private industry members such as Portland General Electric and West Linn Paper Co.by: SUBMITTED FILE PHOTO - Lake Oswego's iron furnace is among historical features being considered for inclusion in the Willamette Falls National Heritage Area, which will eventually be proposed to Congress.

Tourism benefits touted

Marylou Colver, president of the nonprofit Lake Oswego Preservation Society, said she and other prominent local preservation advocates have spent years trying to get Lake Oswego included in Oregon City and West Linn’s national effort.

“There are a number of studies about the economic benefits of the heritage area designations,” Colver explained. “I think by the region joining together with all of our resources and assets it will draw visitors, and once they’re here they’ll want to explore those other areas, whether they come for Native American (history), the paper mill, transfer of electricity or our iron industry. ... Once they’re here, those tourism dollars ripple through the local economy.”

While Lake Oswego could join the coalition without footing the bill for any of the planning or administration work, Colver said, the community has access to a pot of money intended for these types of projects.

Clackamas County gives the city about $20,000 each year in money from hotel and motel taxes; earmarked for tourism-related uses, the funds are administered by the chamber of commerce as community partnership grants, she said.by: SUBMITTED FILE PHOTO - The Willamette Falls area is at the center of a proposed 26-square-mile national heritage district.

Early concerns subside

But not everyone is as happy with the initiative.

Although he said this week he has reconsidered his earlier concerns, resident Don Burdick recently urged Lake Oswego council members to remain cautious of potential impacts of the designation on Oswego Lake, which is managed by the Lake Oswego Corporation, an organization of lakefront homeowners.

Burdick told the council the corporation would be concerned about tourists and local visitors attempting to access lake facilities such as a dam, flume line and powerhouse, although he noted he was testifying as an individual and not a formal representative of the Lake Corp.

“We do not want to have tourism coming to those historical sites,” Burdick said. “It’s one thing to consider them within our community as being historical; it’s quite another to include them in what the Willamette Falls organization is trying for.”

He also worried a national designation could also lead to the imposition of more regulations.

But after meeting with coalition members, Burdick said Monday that his concerns had largely subsided. He said PGE and the paper mill likely wouldn’t have endorsed the heritage area if it posed serious implications for industrial activities.

“Of course the preservation of the smelter, the foundry, is a huge thing we want to preserve,” Burdick said. “But there are other structures that continue to function today, and sometimes well-intentioned preservation stops people from improving their properties and maintaining their properties.

But upon further review the type of heritage area that they want to establish is perhaps even a good idea for Lake Oswego. Cultural tourism is one of the fastest growing travel activities in America. Certainly Lake Oswego has a lot to contribute.”

The city council is scheduled to consider the proposal next Tuesday. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at city hall, 380 A Ave.

Comments sought

The Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition is seeking public input as it pursues a national designation.

Draft copies of a feasibility study, a national requirement for the status, are now available online and at several locations in Lake Oswego, Oregon City, Tualatin and West Linn.

Once this round of public input is incorporated into the document, the coalition will be ready to present its study to Congress, which could then designate the Willamette Falls area as a national heritage area, meaning it’s a place where natural, cultural and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape.

U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon's Fifth Congressional District, will present the legislation to the House, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, will introduce the bill to the Senate.

To see the study, visit wfheritage.org, or go to the Lake Oswego Public Library, 706 Fourth St. in Lake Oswego; the Oregon City library, at 606 John Adams St. in Oregon City; the Tualatin library, at 18878 SW Martinazzi Ave. in Tualatin; or the West Linn Public Library, at 1595 Burns St. in West Linn.

Comments should be submitted by Sept. 23.

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