The Observer asked city representatives in Union County what their cities accomplished in the last year and what their plans are for this upcoming year –– whether that be responding to proposed measures on ballots or the use of grants. At the end of the year, The Observer will follow up with the cities to see if the goals they set were accomplished and what challenges they faced along the way. The Observer also checked in with the Union County Commissioners and the Union County Chamber about their goals for 2018.
Union County Commissioners
The Union County Commissioners are all about economic development in 2018. They are planning an economic summit that will bring every town in the county together to talk about the logistics of filling the empty buildings. Both Commissioner Donna Beverage and Commissioner Steve McClure said they expect the economic development summit will be a catalyst for much of what will happen in the next year.
“If you look at the economy, the six counties in the Eastern part of Oregon really struggle — and Union County is one of them.” McClure said. “We need to work together and create an effective strategy. It’s been really hard for Eastern Oregon counties, but the counties in the western part of the state are doing well.”
Beverage said the summit will bring all the players together — not just the municipalities, but also local economic development organizations — so everyone will know what the county has to offer.
She also plans to address the Baum Industrial Park.
“We want to get new businesses or those wanting to expand (to move into the industrial park),” Beverage said. “One of our goals is to try to get broadband buried out there.”
She said the faster internet will make the industrial park more desirable to businesses.
McClure said the airport rappel base building at the Union County Airport, which will house the rappel teams and their equipment, is set to begin construction this year.
Beverage said the Buffalo Peak Golf Course is focusing on creating a business plan.
“We’re trying to get the income up, and the debt down,” Beverage said. “We’ve been working on that. The business plan will have its own committee of independent people who aren’t county employees. They’ll look at the budget for the course and see where they can be more efficient.”
The La Grande City Council holds an annual retreat in January to discuss the council’s goals for the year. Mayor Steve Clements listed a few things he hopes to see for the city in 2018: moving forward with the Quiet Zone, developing the Grande Ronde Greenway Project (a multi-city bike and walkway project) and improving economic development.
“I want the council and the city as a whole to encourage economic development even outside the Urban Renewal District,” Clements said.
He also said he’d like to tackle the housing development problem.
“The recent articles in The Observer regarding EOU housing and a warming station are two pieces in the great big housing puzzle. If we’re going to bring people here to live, we have to have good housing,” Clements said. “With Hot Lake’s development taking off, they’re going to employ more than 250 people, plus construction workers. Where are we going to put them? That’ll be a county-wide issue.”
City Manager Robert Strope said ongoing economic development is key for 2018.
Strope mentioned Steve West Outdoor Adventures will be expanding into the La Grande Business and Technology Park, a result of 2017’s Call for Projects. Within the first year, the company will be hiring six new employees.
Also, Brickyard Lanes, a bowling alley with a bar and grill, is set to open in downtown La Grande in 2018.
Union Mayor Leonard Flint hopes his city can fill a void early this year by hiring a new city administrator.
The city has not had a permanent city administrator since Sandra Patterson departed in June. Patterson had served as city administrator for 12 years. Rod McKee, the city’s assistant city administrator, has been serving as interim city administrator.
The city began accepting applications for the position in late December after updating its job description. Friday was the deadline for applications for the position.
On the business front, Flint will be taking it upon himself to try to get a banking institution back in Union.
“I want to see if any institutions are interested in moving here,” Flint said.
The city has not had a bank since Umpqua Bank closed its Union branch in June 2016. Flint believes the loss of the bank has hurt Union’s economy. He explained that people tend to do their banking when they are out running other errands. Flint said with Union residents now having to drive to La Grande to bank, they are more likely to do other shopping at the same time in La Grande rather than in Union.
Retirees would be among those who would be most helped by the return of a bank because they are less likely to bank online.
“A lot of retired people are not computer savvy,” Flint said.
Flint is not a fan of banking via the internet.
“I know that you can bank online but there is nothing like talking to a teller,” he said.
Flint hopes that the City of Union’s seven working committees, which began meeting last spring to develop recommendations for addressing local issues, will wrap up their work this year. The committees are composed of city councilors, city staff and community members.
One of the committees is focusing on community development. A major objective of the committee is to devise ways to bring more businesses to Union, Flint said. He said Union and many other small towns are having a difficult time attracting and retaining businesses.
The problem “is technology driven,” Flint said, explaining that people are doing more and more of their shopping online. The mayor said that small communities like Union need to look at innovative ways to address this issue.
A Police Services Committee is also one of the seven on the list. It is continuing to at look ways in which the City of Union’s law enforcement services can be beefed up after the city’s contract with the Union County Sheriff’s Office for enhanced services was not renewed in the fall 2016.
Elgin Mayor Allan Duffy said the city council will meet next month to talk about its goals for the year, but there are already some projects that are gaining traction.
“Our biggest project right now is we’re trying to get a block grant for $3.5 million to redo the sewer system,” Duffy said. “The city engineers are doing preliminary work on that and we’ll be able to apply for the grant later.”
Duffy said the Elgin Museum, which is in the process of renovating its new location, will hopefully open this summer.
“We have had a really great year,” he said. “We’re moving forward. We’re working on a lot of projects. The priorities haven’t been talked about so we’ll talk about that in February.”
The City of Island City will start a street maintenance program in 2018, which Mayor Delmer Hanson hopes will continue for years to come. The program calls for maintenance work to be done on one or two streets a year. This year, work will be done on McAlister Road and Walton Road. Potholes will be filled and paving work will be done on both streets, Hanson said.
The mayor said the ongoing project of improving the streets now will reduce future repair costs.
“We have not had a plan in the past,” Hanson said.
Island City begins the year with its $2.9 million water improvement project, which began about two years ago, virtually complete. The city has a new well and a 500,000 gallon capped metal reservoir, both on McAlister Road, and there are now larger water pipes in much of the city.
Hanson said a number of problems with the water system were discovered in the process of completing the project, which will be addressed this year. They include water valves that do not work well and aging water lines that need to be repaired.
“Some of our water lines are not in the best of shape,” Hanson said.
The mayor hopes that many of the problems recently discovered can be corrected this year.
Plans are also in place in 2018 for Island City to do upgrade work on the pump station for the city’s well on Walton Road, Hanson said.
Cove will see a new sidewalk appear in 2018. The city received a portion of a Statewide Transportation Improvement Program grant that was allotted for District 5 (Eastern Oregon) in order to install a sidewalk along Main Street and up Haefer Lane to the intersection of Conklin Lane. The goal is to create a safe space for children walking to school.
The city also has several experts continuing to search for a power company willing to purchase the power from its hydroelectric plant. Cove had a contract with Idaho Power, but that contract has expired.
“We don’t get enough funding from it for any sort of infrastructure or to hire any employees,” Cove Mayor Lyndon Rose said. He said the city’s main source of income is from outsourcing the energy of the plant.
Last year the city finished replacing some pipeline along the sewage lagoons using money acquired from the hydroelectric plant fund, not costing the people of Cove, Rose said.
“We’re doing as much as we can with what we have for the city,” Rose said.
Ongoing projects in North Powder include an upgrade to the city’s wastewater facility and packing roads, which North Powder Mayor Bonita Hebert says the city is always working on. However, this year the city might be able to do a bit more in part to an Oregon Department of Transportation grant.
“It hasn’t been confirmed yet,” Hebert said, “but we’re hopeful that it will happen.”
She said another concern that she hopes to make progress on this year is either renovating or relocating the city hall –– which also houses the library –– as the building is in bad shape.
“We may try to use a grant writer for that,” Hebert said.
Along with other cities in the region, North Powder will also be looking to attract businesses to the town in order to fill empty buildings.
Hebert said that while funding always seems to be an issue, the city has been saving for several years and was able to upgrade some equipment this last year.
Hebert is also hoping that the people of North Powder can look forward to a question on the November ballot asking if they would like to be part of the Rural Fire Protection District.
“The question will have to include how residents will be taxed for it,” the mayor said. “We still have work to do on it, and will probably have to create a petition.”
Currently the rural fire department is the only responders to North Powder, and it is under a contract with the city and located in a building that is 50 percent city-owned.
Imbler hasn’t seen much action at the city level in the past year, except for a small medical marijuana processing plant speedbump back in April. Scott Nearing, owner of La Grande-based Eastern Oregon Medical Extracts, had wanted to open a shop in Imbler, but he informed a packed city hall that he would not be able to because it was too expensive. While the council didn’t take any input from community members at the time, there seemed to be quite a few individuals opposed to the idea.
This year Imbler will continue the process of replacing the city water meters, which Imbler Mayor Mike McLean said is an ongoing project.
“There isn’t a lot going on that I can think of,” McLean said, “which is good for a small town.”
Water drainage is an issue Summerville Mayor Sheri Rogers said her city may start addressing in 2018. Rogers said the Summerville City Council is considering hiring an engineering firm to look at areas where water tends to pool when there is a heavy rainfall or snowmelt.
“There are low spots where we have trouble getting the water to drain,” Rogers said. “At times we have standing water.”
Summerville now has two storm water drains. Rogers said if an engineering firm recommends adding more storm water drains, the council will take a serious look at the recommendation.
Union County Chamber of Commerce
The Union County Chamber of Commerce has economic development on its mind, and Executive Director Bob Kavanaugh said he’s focusing on vacant buildings. He said he’s helped a small business get into a retail space that has been empty. The business, which Kavanaugh declined to name, decided to move from its current location because rent was being raised. The business will fill the front spot of an already established business on Adams Avenue.
“When we lose a business, there’s a cascade effect,” he said. “From that illustration, when a building gets a business to move in, then more businesses will come to fill the surrounding vacant buildings.”
The chamber director said the organization has double the membership of what it had last year.
“We’re approaching 300 members,” Kavanaugh said. “Our goal is to have 500 by the end of 2018. We believe 500 members turns into a movement. With a movement, members have much more clout when it comes to policy with the county and the city.”
In addition, Kavanaugh said the mayors meeting, a regular meeting of all the mayors in the county, has been going well and is “moving forward.”
He also said the situation at the Blue Mountain Conference Center is improving after a rocky last year during which the entities involved in organizing the use of the conference center nearly lost the facility to the National Guard due to low revenue.
“We had some breakdowns (last year) but it’s gaining traction,” he said. “We’re facilitating the promotion and managing of it — making it into a healthy organization.”