by: PHOTO BY: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - U.S. Congressman Kurt Schrader sees potential for a San Franscisco-style waterfront in Oregon City and supports an effort to name the Willamette Falls a national historic area.What could have possibly drawn dozens of regional and state leaders to a precipice over Willamette Falls on a drizzly and blustery morning last week?

Forklifts from demolition company PIC crisscrossed the paths of elected officials touring the Oregon City landmark, a 23-acre defunct industrial site that became a No. 1 priority for the state’s Regional Solutions initiative. Several top officials with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department visited the site of shuttered Blue Heron Paper Co. for the first time on Jan. 29.

Among them was Natural Resources Manager Jim Morgan, a repeat-visitor who was excited to show Director Tim Wood and Commissioner Jay Graves the potential to put a “crowning jewel” on the state parks system. Morgan sees Blue Heron’s closure in early 2011, which laid off 175 people, as an opportunity to create a park that would be a “gateway to the Willamette Valley.”

Willamette Falls holds the “missing piece” in Oregon’s current park network, Morgan argues, because it offers historical, biological and geological wonders:

1. Called the “birthplace of Oregon” by Mayor Doug Neeley, American Indians used the Willamette Falls site as a Pacific Northwest trading and fishing center for thousands of years. Anglo Americans settled the falls area before other parts of the American West in the 1840s, Morgan also points out.

2. Several threatened animals can only be regularly found in the area around the falls, including lamprey eels and several migratory fish species revered by Native Americans, Morgan notes.

3. Willamette Falls is second only to Niagara in volume anywhere in North America. Created by the epic Missoula Floods after the last ice age, the falls site offers a rare glimpse of the force at which torrential walls of water tore through the landscape about 15,000 years ago.

Later that day, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission held an executive session at Oregon City’s Best Western Rivershore Inn that was closed to the public. On the agenda, commissioners were “to discuss potential property acquisition and opportunities.”

On the potential for the state acquiring the Blue Heron property, Morgan said later in the week that it’s “very early” in the process. Any possible state purchase, Morgan said, would involve the state’s Historical Preservation Office, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office and the Department of Environmental Quality.

“Everyone’s just kind of blown away by the potential there, and the public really deserves to have access to those falls,” he said.

Preliminary, informal discussions have envisioned a public-private partnership in which local agencies also help develop a master plan for the site to determine the important features to maintain. Before the state could make an offer, the Oregon Legislature would first have to approve its budget, currently proposed by Kitzhaber to include about $5 million in lottery revenue bond proceeds for the Blue Heron site.

“Even if it is in the final budget, none of this is prescribed,” Morgan said.

‘Unbelievable opportunity’

The tour was “eye opening” for Congressman Kurt Schrader, a Democrat whose district covers Clackamas County and other parts of Oregon. Schrader has for years supported the Willamette Falls Heritage Coalition’s drive to designate the site as a federally recognized and funded historic area.

“I hadn’t seen the falls at eye level before, and that’s really renewed my commitment to championing the importance of this initiative,” he said.

Known as “the beast” to Oregon City staffers, the Blue Heron site probably has less than 10 acres that are developable. Much of the remaining acreage sits above or below the “main Street level” or is flooded by lagoons.

City officials see lots of potential, however, even for the areas now covered with water, where walkways could be constructed to allow the public out onto the river. Oregon City is in its second year of budgeting $100,000 annually to the site.

“The projections for environmental work are less onerous than we originally thought, and that’s good news, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” said City Manager David Frasher.

Jim Desmond, Metro’s sustainability director, added that there probably wouldn’t be a bankruptcy-court buyer that would interrupt a multi-agency partnership after sitting on the market for almost two years.

“The likelihood that a private buyer would sweep in and not want the public here — that’s not a very likely scenario,” he said.

When pressed for specifics on the environmental hazards of the site, Desmond speculated that the 1996 flood may have washed away most of the dangerous chemicals used in the early 20th century, leaving only a toxicity level on par with the average state highway stained with oil leaks and gas exhaust. Asbestos in the buildings could go with the demolition process, but there’s been talk of saving structures of more historic value, including the original generators visible from Portland General Electric’s overlook.

“We’re really excited about the opportunities here,” Desmond said. “Right now you can’t buy a postcard of these falls, but that’s an unbelievable opportunity.”

Oregon City had foresight eight years ago when it redid its comprehensive plan to recognize that Blue Heron would probably not remain forever. Officials promised rigorous public involvement as to what exactly is built as a replacement down there.

“A lot of things will have to be done,” Neeley said, “and I’m looking forward to some great opportunities.”

Walking together through the site, Schrader and Metro Councilor Carlotta Colette agreed that the right redevelopment could propel the sight to vitality on par with San Francisco’s waterfront. They hoped that local, state and national leaders would work together to realize a shared vision of public access, economic development, historic preservation and environmental stewardship for the area.

by: PHOTO BY: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - A 'concept image' of Willamette Falls tourism potential, according to Oregon City Community Development Director Tony Konkol, will help the community imagine renovations to the site.

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