Oregon City revitalizes despite mill closure


0911_OregonCity_02The bridge leading into downtown Oregon City is closed for repairs, and the city’s largest employer, the Blue Heron paper mill, is history. So why are downtown boosters here so optimistic?

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Top to bottom: Oregon City’s burgeoning downtown scenes: customer Sarah Ferguson tries on a hat at You Can Leave Your Hat On; the Wynona Studios storefront; a wedding cake from Wrightberry’s Cakes and Cupcakes; Jan Wright from Wrightberry’s Cakes and Cupcakes
// Photos by Alexandra Shyshkina

The bridge leading into downtown Oregon City is closed for repairs, and the city’s largest employer, the Blue Heron paper mill, is history.

So why are downtown boosters here so optimistic?

Lloyd Purdy, director of the nonprofit Main Street Oregon City, says 36 new businesses have opened downtown since the city started a revitalization effort in late 2008. True, another 15 have closed during that period, and large vacancies remain, but Purdy says a positive transformation is under way in this historic city of about 32,000 people. He even puts an optimistic spin on the February closure of the mill, which has dominated the area around Willamette Falls in various industrial forms since the 1830s: “We see it as a great opportunity to reclaim that property for a higher and better use.”

The shuttering of Blue Heron, the last remaining mill in the area, severs the city’s strong historic ties with the timber industry and the blue-collar mill jobs it provided. In an ironic twist, Purdy’s organization is promoting the new Oregon City as an affordable business location and shopping destination in a video titled “Blue Collar Creative,” with a hip-hop soundtrack and a montage of flashy urban shots, more steaming espresso drinks and hipsters behind computer monitors than blue-collar workers. The company that produced the video, Funnelbox Motion Picture Studio, is one of Oregon City’s most important employers in the post-mill era.

On a recent afternoon Funnelbox’s 35 or so youthful employees were clicking away at their machines, rushing to complete eight “deliverables” by the end of the month. Funnelbox has spun off a variety of companies since relocating from Portland to Oregon City, most recently a digital sign business called Flixeo and a 3D animation outfit called Clink. Clink gets its name from the former city jail in Funnelbox’s 1925 building, complete with a former drunk tank converted into a crash area for exhausted animators.

A few buildings to the north on Main Street, Jan Wright and her daughter Christi Ross were converting flour, butter and sugar into a mouth-watering variety of concoctions. Wright ran Wrightberry’s Cakes  and Cupcakes out of her home in Oregon City for 13 years, before signing onto a five-year lease here last October. She said business has never been brisker, between the $3.25 cupcakes, enjoyed by lawyers and jurors on break from the courthouse across the street, and more elaborate creations involving handmade sugar flowers and frosted likenesses of Jabba the Hut.

 


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Top to bottom: the You Can Leave Your Hat On storefront; JJ Foster from Wynona Studios; Oregon City plays off its heritage with an old-fashioned streetcar that runs through downtown.
// Photos by Alexandra Shyshkina
 

Several blocks away, Sandra Gillman was hustling to keep up with a line of customers crammed into her tiny boutique hat shop, which opened in late July. The rush didn’t seem to be bothering her at all. “I used to have a very stressful job,” she tells a customer. “Now I get to enjoy myself.”

She wasn’t kidding. Gillman’s previous job was to conducting investigations for the state about convicted murderers facing potential execution, as a mitigation specialist. When she finally couldn’t take the stress anymore, she quit her job to create You Can Leave Your Hat On, a vibrant gathering space of lively music, local chocolates and a wide variety of stylish hats. “I just decided I’m going to spend my days around pretty things instead of criminals,” she said. “Now I’m having a good time and I’m around fun people. And it smells a lot better than prison.”

Not far from the new hat shop, a long-time retail fixture from Portland’s upscale Northwest 23rd Avenue recently reopened on Oregon City’s Main Street. Connie Nicoud grew up in Oregon City and spent the past 23 years running Christmas at the Zoo on Northwest 23rd, which she has transplanted to Oregon City. Now she has returned to her hometown for an easier commute, lower rent, more parking and surprisingly strong foot traffic.

“I actually have more people walking into the shop every day here than I did on Northwest 23rd,” said Nicoud. She said she has absolutely no regrets about the move.

South of Nicoud’s new space, on the other side of  Highway 99E, the former paper plant looms. Some 175 people lost their jobs when the mill closed. A variety of developers are eying the property and the majestic waterfall at its center, “one of the most valuable properties in the Willamette Valley,” in Purdy’s opinion.

The waterfall is the second largest in the nation by water volume behind Niagara Falls, but it’s hardly known as a destination for honeymooners. Whether the Blue Heron property eventually becomes a sweeping new park, an industrial site, a mixed-use attempt at adaptive reuse or some variation thereof, one thing is certain: Oregon City will never be the same.

Ben Jacklet




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