Don't Bet Against Portland? Sure. Double-down on Independence? Even more so.
I’m willing to bet more than my five-dollar coupon that cities like Independence will create new models for sustainable and inclusive development in the years ahead.
Tim served as Chief of Staff for Gov. Kulongoski. A former union leader, he lives near Independence and oversees a specialty apple orchard.
When John Tapogna was urging us not to bet against Portland late last year, I was doubling down on Independence.
I live on a hillside just three miles from the steepled storefronts of that city of 10,000, so of course I was all in for my hometown. And I was quick to side with those who foresaw a pandemic-induced exodus from the increasingly crowded environs of Portland to the open spaces of our mid-Valley communities.
I wasn’t alone, and this wasn’t just an Oregon thing. National commentators like James and Deb Fallows and David Brooks had begun to predict a renaissance in small towns across the U.S. even before the COVID shutdowns led many city dwellers to abandon high-rises with balconies for homes with backyards. Oregon commentators like Loran Joseph have similarly predicted that urbanites would trade the dense urban blocks for wide rural sidewalks. Now, with a post-COVID recovery on the horizon, I expect these trends will continue. What’s less clear is whether most of our rural towns and small cities in Oregon can manage to make the best of their new popularity.
Independence is an instructive case study for managing growth and shaping its destiny in this changing environment – another Oregon Way story writ small.
First, there’s what the data show. Independence has been one of the fastest growing cities in Oregon since the turn of this century. And it’s not because, as I first thought, that its location makes it a natural bedroom community for Salem and Corvallis. Job growth has consistently equaled or exceeded its population growth, with a diverse mix of small manufacturers (cabinetry, spas, and trailers), ag-related industries, and a sprinkling of tourism-focused retail businesses (but just a sprinkling, as I explain below).
Independence is also ethnically diverse, with Latinos numbering close to 40% of its population. The city is now second only to Woodburn for the proportion of Latino families among mid-Valley cities. And its population is notably younger than that of Oregon as a whole, with a median age of 27.6 compared to the statewide median of 39.3. Demographics may not be destiny, but a younger population is likely to be more dynamic—provided that a community’s educational and employment opportunities can catalyze and direct their ambitions. In my observation, this is especially true for second generation immigrants, whose upward mobility is evident now as migrant farm workers settle into a resident workforce on our farms, nurseries, and ag supply businesses.
Second, there’s what our eyes can see. Like many riverside cities that have reclaimed their industrial waterfronts over the last several decades, Independence has made the most of its location on the Willamette. Gone is a gravel and concrete facility that separated downtown from the river. In its place is a new hotel adjacent to the city’s iconic amphitheater, connected to dozens of new townhouses, hiking trails, and soccer fields.
Restaurants are another indicator of the city’s resilient economy. Some didn’t survive the pandemic, others managed to stay open or are planning to re-open soon. But, all told, Independence has the same number of restaurants now as it had before the lockdown. And another five new establishments are slated to open their doors this summer. Unlike the shoulder-to-shoulder dining configurations of Portland and other large cities, the restaurants here have space, lots of it, both indoors and outside on patios without having to spread out into awkward curbside spaces one sees throughout urban neighborhoods.
Third, Independence and its sister city of Monmouth made one big bet 15 years ago that has already paid off big time. The two cities invested in a high-speed broadband network, known as MINET, that has proven to be a big draw for businesses, educators, and professionals working from home. That experience should be Exhibit A for advocates of rural broadband. For my money, this is by far the single most effective investment for the future of Oregon’s small cities and towns.
Finally, after talking with Independence Mayor John McArdle and other city staffers and community leaders, it’s obvious that the story of Independence in recent years isn’t just one of being well-positioned geographically or well-suited demographically to benefit from larger economic and social trends. Rather, it’s the story of an engaged community, a city government that is nimble and committed to partnerships with non-profits and small businesses, and, most notably, a culture of eclectic, almost quirky innovation.
McArdle still pores over the maps of the city’s 2020 plan, showing how it is all coming together along the waterfront not in a linear or sequential way, but in a hopscotch fashion that seizes opportunities when they arise to knit together public and private lands in a pattern that will eventually become a seamless riverside whole. McArdle credits broad citizen involvement as well as focused goal-setting for the success of the city’s plan and he is proud of having engaged more than 2,000 of the city’s residents in a new Vision 2040 plan.
Central to that plan is a certain wariness of tourism which I find unique among cities and towns in rural Oregon. As the city’s economic development coordinator, Shawn Irvine, explains the city wants to encourage a self-sustaining future, in which shocks like pandemic lockdowns need not suddenly shutter main street businesses and a diversity of business enterprises can pick up the slack when certain segments of the economy falter.
As for that that culture of innovation I mentioned, here’s the latest example. When the city debated what to do with an infusion of CARES Act funding last year, it decided to go in two directions, combining supply-side and demand-side economic strategies. On the supply-side, they directed grants to small businesses in the form of technical assistance to help them with short-term marketing plans and to position them for a post-COVID comeback.
The demand-side was a little quirkier. At the urging of the local chamber of commerce, the city decided to issue scratch-off coupons to its restaurants and bakeries redeemable for subsequent purchases at participating establishments. Each coupon was a winner, in amounts ranging from $1 to $100. I scored two five-dollar coupons myself and viewed it as a kind of reverse sales tax, with the added allure of a no-lose lottery. But the proceeds had to be spent within a month at the city’s retailers, and Irvine estimates that each scratch-off dollar generated an extra five dollars for the local economy. If states are laboratories of democracy, small cities and towns like Independence are demonstrating that they can be centers of experimentation and innovation for their local economies.
When the Fallows and Brooks and other national commentators started calling attention to the vitality of rural cities and small towns a few years ago, they told many of the same kinds of stories I’m sharing here about Independence. But the key to the renaissance they saw was social and civic, just as I see in Independence. Whether that culture is scalable is beside the point. At some scale, it works. And I’m willing to bet more than a five-dollar coupon that cities like Independence will create new models for sustainable and inclusive development in the years ahead.
Oregon is full of innovative communities and visionary local leaders. Leave a comment or share a social media post identifying some places and people worthy of “betting on” for helping move Oregon forward.
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