Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Begin Second Round of Demolition at Blue Heron Site

Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Tribe also expects to begin constructing streets at the site in 2023.

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Earlier this week, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde announced the beginning of the next round of demolition on the former Blue Heron paper mill site in Oregon City.

The tribe began demolition work on the Blue Heron paper mill itself in September after purchasing the 23-acre site in 2019. The last part of that structure came down in January.

“We are pleased to start the second phase of demolition and make further progress toward implementing our vision — restoring the land and creating opportunities for all Oregonians to access this special site,” Cheryle A. Kennedy, chairwoman of the Grand Ronde Tribe, said in a press release issued by the tribe.

The new phase of demolition will be a similarly deliberate process, estimated to take seven to eight weeks. Four structures — a water-filtration plant, a millwright shop, an auto shop and a carpentry shop — will come down altogether.

The destruction of the water-filtration plant — which was once used to filter and store water before it was returned to the Willamette River — will be the most complex and time-consuming part of the process and is expected to take four to five weeks to pull down.

That’s because of the size of the building and the nature of the materials in it, says Ryan Webb, who works as engineering and planning manager for the tribal government. He is also serving as a project manager for the Willamette Falls redevelopment project.

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Webb also noted that several of the structures targeted in this round of demolition include materials like asbestos, which is one reason the demolition will need to be done slowly.

“With each building that we demo, we work closely with Oregon DEQ,” Webb tells Oregon Business. “We work closely to make sure that the demo work follows best-management practices.”

Another reason the work is proceeding slowly, Webb says, is the density of buildings on the site, of which 55 are still standing.

Webb also tells Oregon Business that the tribe expects to begin street construction at the site using $2 million in federal funds approved in last year’s appropriations bill.

“We will push to see some groundbreaking in 2023. It all depends which agency the money comes through,” Webb says.

In mid-March, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde announced its withdrawal from the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, a collaboration that was formed by Metro, the state of Oregon, Oregon City and Clackamas County. The tribal government had already withdrawn from the Willamette Falls Trust, an independent nonprofit that originally included five tribal governments with historical ties to the area.

“For nearly 10 years, we have watched as little progress at Willamette Falls occurred while significant public resources have been spent. Months of talks about adding even more governments to the table are prolonging project gridlock and not yielding any benefits to the public,” Kennedy wrote in the letter announcing the Tribe’s withdrawal.

RELATED STORY: Restoring Tumwata on the Walamt

The Blue Heron site operated as an industrial hub for more than 100 years and as a fishing site for Indigenous people for an estimated 15,000 years before that.

Shortly after the Blue Heron paper mill shuttered in 2011, four local governments formed the Willamette Falls Legacy Project to begin investigating the future of the site, drafting a memorandum of understanding, including plans for a riverwalk, three years later. Tribal governments are not mentioned in any of the original planning documents.

The Willamette Falls Trust included four other tribal governments with historic ties to the area, including two — the Warm Springs Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation — that had contested the Grand Ronde’s right to build a fishing platform on the falls.

The Tribe’s press release from this week includes a quote from outgoing Oregon City Mayor Rachel Lyles Smith, who announced her resignation at the end of March in order to relocate and spend time with family. Her last day will be April 22.

“The demolition of these buildings provides visual progress on the site, all while much hard work, planning and visioning has been done by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde since their purchase of the former Blue Heron paper mill,” she said in the tribe’s press release. “The Oregon City community is looking forward to the next phases and future developments on the site, and excited by the speed and pace of progress.”

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