New Willamette Main Street manager relishes 'dream job' opportunity
All Rae Gordon needed was a second chance.
The Oregon City resident — whose eclectic career includes 10 years working at Oregon's Mt. Hood Territory tourism group — was the runner-up two years ago when West Linn's Historic Willamette Main Street (HWMS) organization hired its first part-time manager, Noelle Brooks. When Brooks accepted a different full-time job near the end of 2017, HWMS reached out to Gordon to see if she would be interested in taking over.
For Gordon, it was the fulfillment of a dream long deferred.
"I've been interested in the Main Street program for years — I'd actually applied for Molalla years ago," Gordon said. "What I really like about it is it combines all of my interests, which are community engagement, tourism, economic development and also events … the idea of being able to combine all of those, it's just like a dream job."
Gordon joins a young organization that has grown steadily since it was created in 2010 and officially registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2014. As part of the Oregon Main Street Program — which falls under the broader arm of Main Street America — the Historic Willamette group's stated goal is to "celebrate and preserve the rich history and natural beauty of the area, invest in the heart of our downtown and create a community where local residents and visitors can dine, shop and connect with others." To advance those goals, Main Street groups use a four-point approach focusing on organization, economic restructuring, promotion and design.
Gordon said she hopes to build on what Brooks was able to accomplish in her two years running Main Street. That list was impressive, as Brooks helped revitalize the West Linn Farmers Market while also adding a slew of new events to the Willamette calendar and leading the process of constructing a conceptual master plan for reshaping the layout of Willamette Falls Drive.
"Noelle has done a great job," Gordon said. "She has big shoes to fill."
Gordon's path to this point was long and winding, but she learned valuable and relevant lessons at each of her career stops. A native of Southern California, Gordon started out working for a motion picture equipment business.
"I started working on sets and stuff — that was pretty good and lots of fun — then I moved here and worked with motion picture equipment again," Gordon said. "And then I got into photography and the magazine business where I successfully pitched shoots and stories for a magazine photographer.
"That really got me excited about learning about people's stories, why they do stuff."
But Gordon found her true calling when she arrived at Mt. Hood Territory as a marketing assistant, where she would spend the next 10 years before moving on in 2015.
"I just like the idea of people really living their passions. And that's what I love the most about small towns and small businesses is that these people are living their dreams, and to have a part in making their dreams happen, I treasure that," Gordon said. "When I was working for the (Mt. Hood Territory) tourism department, my favorite things were working with event coordinators but also small business owners because their passion is amazing."
In 2015, when Gordon left that job and applied for the HWMS position, it was with the hope of creating a more flexible schedule that would allow her to take on a lead role in tourism and marketing while also spending more time pursuing another passion — music. When she didn't get the HWMS job, Gordon didn't blink; instead, she started her own marketing and events consulting business while touring the country with her band, the Rae Gordon Band.
"So the best part about not getting the job two years ago is (that) some of the experience I've gotten in last two years is going to benefit Willamette — getting people media exposure, writing articles, getting published, doing a lot of branding, helping small businesses," Gordon said. "That was amazing."
Now that she has her dream job, Gordon has plenty of ideas for how to build on her predecessor's success.
"What's cool about Willamette is they have established events, but they also have opportunities for new events that I have ideas for that I think would bring community together," Gordon said. "I think finding events that attract both residents and visitors is important, especially for the businesses because you need an influx of both. (For example) Oregon City has this great neighborhood yard sale, I think that would be fun."
Gordon is also planning an event for St. Patrick's Day in Willamette, the details for which are forthcoming. And she hopes to coordinate more with Oregon City for future events.
"I really was impressed with what (former Main Street Oregon City Executive Director) Lloyd Purdy did over in Oregon City, and what (current Executive Director) Jonathan Stone is now doing," Gordon said. "I would like to look at some partnership opportunities to be able to cross promote each other in Oregon City, bridge that gap."
As tireless as she is, Gordon knows she can't go it alone as Main Street's manager. Community engagement will be key, and she has plenty of experience with that as a current member of three Oregon City citizen committees.
"Residents have a part in this," she said. "People can be involved and we do need help on committees. The more people are involved, the more we can do."