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Our Opinion: Willamette Falls project deserves support

There’s a lot of history on the riverbank overlooking Willamette Falls. There’s a good future there, as well.

On Feb. 1, 1849, the original plat for San Francisco was filed in the only federal district court on the West Coast: in Oregon City. Despite the fact that Oregon City was the first city to be incorporated west of the Rocky Mountains and didn’t burn down nearly as often as San Francisco did, the two cities obviously didn’t enjoy the same level of growth.

History hasn’t always been kind to Oregon City. When the Blue Heron Paper Co. closed in 2011 and the mill became dormant, 175 people lost their jobs. More importantly for Oregon City, the prospect of the buildings becoming a long-term blight on the waterfront property was all too real.

It’s one thing if unsightly buildings are part of a business actively contributing to the local economy; it’s another if they’re in foreclosure and there are no prospects for positive change.

Which is why George Heidgerken’s vision for the old mill site, together with the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, is so intriguing. Building upon a revitalization effort started by Oregon City, Metro, Clackamas County and the state, Heidgerken paid $2.2 million to save the property from bankruptcy and has since signed on to the master plan for the site.

Clackamas County, which has contributed $100,000 to the project, is complaining it hasn’t been given equal say in the decision-making process. The county isn’t an equal partner in the process, and shouldn’t be seen as one. Its lobbying efforts may bear fruit in the form of federal dollars, but it hardly can take credit for coming up with that money.

Another item we’re a bit concerned about is the intention of turning the site into a mixed-use development of both businesses and residences without any clear plan for parking. We would hope that Oregon City would not make the same mistake that Portland has with regard to allowing too much development without adequate consideration for public parking.

Finally, despite the project’s grand plans, funding for the plan is unclear. Heidgerken says he doesn’t have “investors,” but, rather, has “partners.”

Project plans may go forward, but that doesn’t ensure other business owners will feel compelled to renovate some of the older buildings, then look for tenants. We hope they do, but it’s hardly a business plan we would bet on. Nonetheless, the Legislature already has set aside $5 million to help clean up the Blue Heron site and get it ready for redevelopment.

There are real concerns. Heidgerken has dealt with several federal tax liens for years and faced federal charges in 1993 for illegal storage and transport of hazardous materials — charges that led to a sentence of five months in jail.

What’s more, as a developer, he has proposed other grand projects that have yet to come to fruition. Close to home, he is behind the purchase and redevelopment of the old Olympia Brewery in Tumwater, Wash. — a project he has been working on since 2010.

Concerns aside, we’re encouraged by this project and hope that it moves forward. It’s estimated the project would create 1,460 temporary jobs, 1,480 permanent jobs, an estimated $2.3 million in tax revenue, and an additional $14 million in tourism dollars.

What’s more, Oregon City businesses have already been working hard at improving the downtown core and establishing a mix of businesses and housing. We feel this project would complement those efforts. If seen through to the end, Oregon City would truly have a world-class tourist destination in addition to the potential for a thriving downtown core.

San Francisco may always be larger than Oregon City, but this project could definitely help restore the shine to this historic Oregon city.