LA GRANDE — In La Grande, a worn-out building now has a better chance of going from abandoned or rundown to a renovated focal point of the community.

Local high school students were given a hands-on opportunity to learn about renovating older properties in the La Grande downtown area through Eastern Oregon University’s Property Hunters Summer Institute. Four Baker High School and two La Grande High School students took part in the week-long summer program that started Monday, July 12.

“At the end of the day, the goal is to help students have the skills needed to address problems in rural areas,” said Shannon Donovan, a Sustainable Rural Systems professor at EOU. “Then maybe they’ll grow an interest to improve those rural areas and stay in rural areas as opposed to moving away.”

Donovan helped establish the SRS degree at Eastern in 2020 as one of the founding faculty members and original professors in the program. The SRS program overlaps and collaborates with the Baker Technology Institute, with both coming together to host the Property Hunters summer program.

The joint effort by the university and Baker Technology Institute aims to educate high school students on the Brownfield Redevelopment process in rural areas. The process involves cleaning contamination and overcoming construction challenges in order to renovate old or historic buildings into new businesses.

“In my experience, by getting some of my high-schoolers involved, it’s given them that sense of community that they didn’t have previously,” BTI instructor Robbie Langrell said.

Learning about challenges and potential

The students met at Eastern Oregon’s campus and toured various projects in La Grande throughout the week. The group visited the Brickyard Lanes bowling alley project June 13, followed by a tour of The Local on Adams Avenue and an in-depth conversation with the owners.

Owners Gust and Karin Tsiatsos explained the process behind renovating the old Texaco station in downtown La Grande into a coffee and ice cream shop. They answered questions from the students and talked about the challenges and successes they have experienced in the business’s early days. The couple also owns and operates The Landing Hotel across the street, which involved a major renovation process as well.

“We’ve learned a lot of things about different kinds of contaminants and all the different things that go into building a place back up from basically rubble,” Baker High School student Meadoh Waldrop said. “Just being able to check out (The Local), I’m excited to come back and see what it’s turned into and how else the town keeps growing.”

Later in the day, the group met at the other end of Adams Avenue at the Liberty Theatre, where they spoke with Liberty Theatre Foundation Board Chair Ashley O’Toole. The project officially began in 2011, with renovations beginning in 2017. O’Toole explained the variety of Brownfield Redevelopment issues that have appeared along the way, such as lead paint, asbestos and securing the foundation.

“It’s really fun and interesting learning about the potentials of different buildings here,” La Grande High School student Cecilia Villagomez Edvalson said. “I’ve realized how many abandoned buildings this town has and different ways old buildings can be renovated.”

The value in a community’s infrastructure

According to Donovan, the goal of the SRS program is to educate students on the value in utilizing a town’s current infrastructure as opposed to building outward. La Grande currently has one of the highest number of Brownfield Redevelopment per capita, making the city an ideal location for the program.

“We’re pretty excited to get the students exposed to that and understand that Brownfield Redevelopment is more than just (renovating) contaminated buildings,” Donovan said. “It’s about building community.”

By touring renovation sites and getting firsthand advice from local owners, the Property Hunters group gained an understanding of the added community-building that comes along with renovating spaces in downtown areas.

“It really helps the economy and helps people,” Baker High School student Gus Terteling said. “There’s a place where people can go and spend money and have a good time, as opposed to just another empty building to walk past.”

For Villagomez Edvalson, the program opened her eyes to new community spaces in La Grande, like The Local, that young people can enjoy.

“I like (that The Local) is close to the schools so we can all just walk here and hang out,” she said. “It’s a fun environment to do homework and hang out.”

The high school students participating in the Property Hunters summer program earned college credits upon completing the program. Entering its second year, the SRS program at Eastern Oregon University hopes to continue to grow interest in the Brownsfield process alongside the Baker Technical Institute.

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